badiou summarizes lacan in 800 words!

The trials of the post-Freudians: Jacques’ cigar has gone limp! 

Jacques Lacan (1901-1981) 


The man who has just died was all the greater in that greatness is becoming rare — very rare — in our uncertain lands. The media let him see that very clearly, as their goal is always to align that which exists with the transient and limited prose of journalism. They all asked his sworn enemies and those who go through the dustbins to say something about him.


When not even death can silence envy, it really is a sign of just how barbaric our societies are. All those psychoanalytic dwarves, all those gossip columnists amplifying the mean cry of ‘He was standing in my way, and now he’s dead at last. Now pay some attention to ME!’


It is a fact that Lacan was on the warpath right from the start, denouncing the illusory consistency of the ‘Ego’, rejecting the American psychoanalysis of the 1950s which proposed to ‘reinforce the ego’ and thereby adapt people to the social consensus and arguing that, because it is symbolically determined by language, the subject is irreducibly the subject of desire, and as such cannot be adapted to reality, except perhaps in the imaginary.


Lacan in effect established that the cause of desire is an object that has been lost, that is lacking, and that, being articulated under the symbolic law, desire has no substance and no nature. It has only a truth.


He made money out of this particularly bleak vision of psychoanalysis, in which it is the truth and not happiness that is in play, thanks to the practice of what were sometimes very short sessions. The crucial and non-existent role of psychoanalysts in the plural is to let shine — with a searingly subjective brightness — the signifier of a break that lets slip the truth of desire, whilst the individual psychoanalyst must, ultimately, reconcile himself to be nothing more than what is left at the end of the analysis and when that work is done.


The practice of short sessions polarized a real hatred of the truth against Lacan. As a result, he was literally excommunicated by the psychoanalytic International. The need to organize the transmission of his thought, and to train analysts who would act in accordance with what he believed to be the ethics of psychoanalytic practice, led him to found his own school. But even there, the splits and dissolutions were testimony to a stubborn reluctance to hold the severe position he promoted to the end.


It had become good form to state that the ageing Lacan was no longer transmitting anything worthwhile from the 1970s onwards. In my view, it is quite the opposite. Having lamented the theory of the subject’s subservience to the signifying rule, Lacan made one final effort to pursue his investigation into its relationship with the real as far as he could. The rules of the signifier were no longer enough. What was needed was some kind of geometry of the unconscious, a new way of representing the three agencies (symbolic, imaginary, real) in which the subject-effect is deployed. Lacan’s recourse to topology was an internal requirement born of this new stage in his thinking, and it brought out his underlying materialism.


Lacan held that politics has no effect on the real. He used to say that ‘the social is always a wound’. And yet it so happens that even a Marxism in crisis cannot avoid making reference to the dialectic of the subject that he outlines. It is in effect clear that the fiasco of the Party-States that emerged from the Third International opens up radical questions about the essence of the political subject. Now, neither the subject-as-consciousness (Sartre‘s thesis) nor the subject-as-natural substance will do. The at once divided and errant subject theorized by Lacan in his own realm does offer us a way out of that impasse. For such a subject is a product of a break, and not of the idea that it represents a reality, not even that of the working class. For today’s French Marxists, the function of Lacan is the function that Hegel served for the German revolutionaries of the 1840s.


Given the trite situation in which we find ourselves, marked by the platitudes and relative self-abasement of our intellectuals, the death of Lacan, coming so soon after that of Sartre, does nothing to improve matters. We were anxious to hear what he might still have to say. Quite aside from the content of his teaching, he developed an ethics of thought that is now highly unusual.


Le Perroquet1 will of course come back to the almost incalculable import of that ethics. For the moment, the important thing is, without any restrictions or any presumption, to pay tribute to one who is no longer with us.




1 This text appeared in the fortnightly Le Perroquet, which was founded by Natacha Michel and myself, and which was probably the most interesting paper published in the 1980s; the accuracy of that eulogy can be verified by reading the complete run (1981-87). Written just after the death of Lacan, the article appeared in the pilot issue of the fortnightly, dated November 1981.


I have written on, or about, Lacan very often. He is an essential point of reference for my first ‘big’ book on philosophy, Théorie du sujet (1982). In 1994-95,1 devoted a whole year’s seminar to him. In addition to the two sections of my systematic syntheses devoted to his thought in, respectively, the last and 38th mediation of Being and Event L’Etre et événement, 1988] and Logics of Worlds [Logiques du monde, Book VII, section 2, 2006]. Long discussions, both admiring and critical, can be found in Conditions (1992), with particular reference to Lacan’s relationship with the concept of the infinite, the notion of knowledge and the real experience of love. My most recent and complete text on the crucial question of Lacanian anti-philosophy appeared in English in the journal Lacanian Ink no. 27 under the title ‘The Formulas of L’étourdi’.



—from Alain Badiou, Pocket Pantheon: Figures Of Postwar Philosophy, Verso 2009. Translated by David Macey from Petit Pantheon Portatif, Editions La Fabrique, 2008.

the late, great claude lévi-strauss on myth and meaning

He was building not so much a science of myth as a brilliant explication of the nuances and competing interpretation of our oldest stories. And he lived to see his 101st year, thereby proving reading is good for you! 

Claude Lévi-Strauss, 

 The Meeting Of Myth And Science

Let me start with a personal confession. There is a magazine which I read faithfully each month from the first line to the last, even though I don’t understand all of it; it is the Scientific American. I am extremely eager to be as informed as possible of everything that takes place in modern science and its new developments. My position in relation to science is thus not a negative one.

Secondly, I think there are some things we have lost, and we should try perhaps to regain them, because I am not sure that in the kind of world in which we are living and with the kind of scientific thinking we are bound to follow, we can regain these things exactly as if they had never been lost; but we can try to become aware of their existence and their importance.

In the third place, my feeling is that modern science is not at all moving away from these lost things, but that more and more it is attempting to reintegrate them in the field of scientific explanation. The real gap, the real separation between science and what we might as well call mythical thought for the sake of finding a convenient name, although it is not exactly that—the real separation occurred in the seventeenth and the eighteenth century. At that time, with Bacon, Descartes, Newton, and the others, it was necessary for science to build itself up against the old generations of mythical and mystical thought, and it was thought that science could only exist by turning its back upon the world of the senses, the world we see, smell, taste, and perceive; the sensory was a delusive world, whereas the real world was a world of mathematical properties which could only be grasped by the intellect and which was entirely at odds with the false testimony of the senses. This was probably a necessary move, for experience shows us that thanks to this separation—this schism if you like—scientific thought was able to constitute itself.

Now, my impression (and, of course, I do not talk as a scientist—I am not a physicist, I am not a biologist, I am not a chemist) is that contemporary science is tending to overcome this gap, and that more and more the sense data are being reintegrated into scientific explanation as something which has a meaning, which has a truth, and which can be explained.

Take, for instance, the world of smells. We were accustomed to think that this was entirely subjective, outside the world of science. Now the chemists are able to tell us that each smell or each taste has a certain chemical composition and to give us the reasons why subjectively some smells or some tastes feel to us as having something in common and some others seem widely different. 

Let’s take another example. There was in philosophy from the time of the Greeks to the eighteenth and even the nineteenth century—and there still is to some extent—a tremendous discussion about the origin of mathematical ideas—the idea of the line, the idea of the circle, the idea of the triangle. There were, in the main, two classical theories: one of the mind as a tabula rasa, with nothing in it in the beginning; everything comes to it from experience. It is from seeing a lot of round objects, none of which were perfectly round, that we are able nevertheless to abstract the idea of the circle. The second classical theory goes back to Plato, who claimed that such ideas of the circle, of the triangle, of the line, are perfect, innate in the mind, and it is because they are given to the mind that we are able to project them, so to speak, on reality, although reality never offers us a perfect circle or a perfect triangle.

Now, contemporary researchers on the neurophysiology of vision teach us that the nervous cells in the retina and the other apparatus behind the retina are specialized: some cells are sensitive only to straight direction, in the vertical sense, others in the horizontal, others in the oblique, some of them to the relationship between the background and the central figures, and the like. So—and I simplify very much because it is too complicated for me to explain this in English—this whole problem of experience versus mind seems to have a solution in the structure of the nervous system, not in the structure of the mind or in experience, but somewhere between mind and experience in the way our nervous system is built and in the way it mediates between mind and experience.

Probably there is something deep in my own mind, which makes it likely that I always was what is now being called a structuralist. My mother told me that, when I was about two years old and still unable to read, of course, I claimed that actually I was able to read. And when I was asked why, I said that when I looked at the signboards on shops—for instance, boulanger (baker) or boucher (butcher)—I was able to read something because what was obviously similar, from a graphic point of view, in the writing could not mean anything other than ‘bou,’ the same first syllable of boucher and boulanger. Probably there is nothing more than that in the structuralist approach; it is the quest for the invariant, or for the invariant elements among superficial differences.

Throughout my life, this search was probably a predominant interest of mine. When I was a child, for a while my main interest was geology. The problem in geology is also to try to understand what is invariant in the tremendous diversity of landscapes, that is, to be able to reduce a landscape to a finite number of geological layers and of geological operations. Later as an adolescent, I spent a great part of my leisure time drawing costumes and sets for opera. The problem there is exactly the same—to try to express in one language, that is, the language of graphic arts and painting, something which also exists in music and in the libretto; that is, to try to reach the invariant property of a very complex set of codes (the musical code, the literary code, the artistic code). The problem is to find what is common to all of them. It’s a problem, one might say, of translation, of translating what is expressed in one language—or one code, if you prefer, but language is sufficient—into expression in a different language.

Structuralism, or whatever goes under that name, has been considered as something completely new and at thetime revolutionary; this, I think, is doubly false. In the first place, even in the field of the humanities, it is not new at all; we can follow very well this trend of thought from the Renaissance to the nineteenth century and to the present time. But it is also wrong for another reason: what we call structuralism in the field of linguistics, or anthropology, or the like, is nothing other than a very pale and faint imitation of what the ‘hard sciences,’ as I think you call them in English, have been doing all the time.

Science has only two ways of proceeding: it is either reductionist or structuralist. It is reductionist when it is possible to find out that very complex phenomena on one level can be reduced to simpler phenomena on other levels. For instance, there is a lot in life which can be reduced to physico-chemical processes, which explain a part but not all. And when we are confronted with phenomena too complex to be reduced to phenomena of a lower order, then we can only approach them by looking to their relationships, that is, by trying to understand what kind of original system they make up. This is exactly what we have been trying to do in linguistics, in anthropology, and in different fields.

It is true—and let’s personalize nature for the sake of the argument—that Nature has only a limited number of procedures at her disposal and that the kinds of procedure which Nature uses at one level of reality are bound to reappear at different levels. The genetic code is a very good example; it is well known that, when the biologists and the geneticists had the problem of describing what they had discovered, they could do nothing better than borrow the language of linguistics and to speak of words, of phrase, of accent, of punctuation marks, and the like. I do not mean at all that it is the same thing; of course, it is not. But it is the same kind of problem arising at two different levels of reality.

It would be very far from my mind to try to reduce culture, as we say in our anthropological jargon, to nature; but nevertheless what we witness at the level of culture are phenomena of the same kind from a formal point of view (I do not mean at all substantially). We can at least trace the same problem to the mind that we can observe on the level of nature, though, of course, the cultural is much more complicated and calls upon a much larger number of variables.

I’m not trying to formulate a philosophy, or even a theory. Since I was a child, I have been bothered by, let’s call it the irrational, and have been trying to find an order behind what is given to us as a disorder. It so happened that I became an anthropologist, as a matter of fact not because I was interested in anthropology, but because I was trying to get out of philosophy. It also so happened that in the French academic framework, where anthropology was at the time not taught as a discipline in its own right in the universities, it was possible for somebody trained in philosophy and teaching philosophy to escape to anthropology. I escaped there, and was confronted immediately by one problem—there were lots of rules of marriage all over the world which looked absolutely meaningless, and it was all the more irritating because, if they were meaningless, then there should be different rules for each people, though nevertheless the number of rules could be more or less finite. So, if the same absurdity was found to reappear over and over again, and another kind of absurdity also to reappear, then this was something which was not absolutely absurd; otherwise it would not reappear. 

Such was my first orientation, to try to find an order behind this apparent disorder. And when after working on the kinship systems and marriage rules, I turned my attention, also by chance and not at all on purpose, toward mythology, the problem was exactly the same. Mythical stories are, or seem, arbitrary, meaningless, absurd, yet nevertheless they seem to reappear all over the world. A ‘fanciful’ creation of the mind in one place would be unique—you would not find the same creation in a completely different place. My problem was trying to find out if there was some kind of order behind this apparent disorder—that’s all. And I do not claim that there are conclusions to be drawn.

It is, I think, absolutely impossible to conceive of meaning without order. There is something very curious in semantics, that the word ‘meaning’ is probably, in the whole language, the word the meaning of which is the most difficult to find. What does ‘to mean’ mean? It seems to me that the only answer we can give is that ‘to mean’ means the ability of any kind of data to be translated in a different language. I do not mean a different language like French or German, but different words on a different level. After all, this translation is what a dictionary is expected to give you—the meaning of the word in different words, which on a slightly different level are isomorphic to the word or expression you are trying to understand. Now, what would a translation be without rules?

It would be absolutely impossible to understand. Because you cannot replace any word by any other word or any sentence by any other sentence, you have to have rules of translation. To speak of rules and to speak of meaning is to speak of the same thing; and if we look at all the intellectual undertakings of mankind, as far as they have been recorded all over the world, the common denominator is always to introduce some kind of order. If this represents a basic need for order in the human mind and since, after all, the human mind is only part of the universe, the need probably exists because there is some order in the universe and the universe is not a chaos.


What I have been trying to say here is that there has been a divorce—a necessary divorce—between scientific thought and what I have called the logic of the concrete, that is, the respect for and the use of the data of the senses, as opposed to images and symbols and the like. We are witnessing the moment when this divorce will perhaps be overcome or reversed, because modern science seems to be able to make progress not only in its own traditional line—pushing forward and forward but still within the same narrow channel—but also at the same time to widen the channel and to reincorporate a great many items previously left outside.

In this respect, I may be subjected to the criticism of being called ‘scientistic’ or a kind of blind believer in science who holds that science is able to solve absolutely all problems. Well, I certainly don’t believe that, because I cannot conceive that a day will come when science will be complete and achieved. There will always be new problems, and exactly at the same pace as science is able to solve problems which were deemed philosophical a dozen years or a century ago, so there will appear new problems which had not hitherto been not perceived as such. There will always be a gap between the answer science is able to give us and the new question which this answer will raise. So I am not ‘scientistic’ in that way. Science will never give us all the answers. What we can try to do is to increase very slowly the number and the quality of the answers we are able to give, and this, I think, we can do only through science.

 —from Claude Lévi-Strauss, Myth and Meaning, University of Toronto Press, 1978. Originally in the form of a talk given as part of the 1977 Massey Lectures entitled “Myth and Meaning,” and  broadcast on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Radio series, Ideas, in December 1977.



nihilism unbound: john zerzan on the spirit of our age

The theories of the anarcho-primitivist John Zerzan derive in part from the negative dialectics of Theodor Adorno, as well as concepts from other Frankfurt School theorists, including their analyses of alienation and society, art and culture, and so on. Zerzan posits for humanity a pre-historical golden age, which lasted until the advent of our original sin — the emergence of symbolic thought or “culture.” The little humanity we have left will soon be totally eclipsed by the dominance of robotic and cyborg technologies and virtual reality simulations: “Progress has meant the looming specter of the complete dehumanization of the individual and the catastrophe of ecological collapse.” (Running On Emptiness, p. 79).

The Age Of Nihilism


Technological mediation and separation continue on their emptying ascendancy, embodying so well capital’s impoverishing penetration of every level of life on this planet. But there are signs that an era of unchecked cynicism, engendered by this rampant advance of techno-capital, is finally being challenged. The challengers, moreover, are quickly deepening their understanding of how fundamental the challenge must be if it is to succeed.


With this in mind, the following comments on nihilism may well be less apropos than they would have been even a year or two ago. For the focus of this essay is passive nihilism, rather than the probing, critical variety, which is the active nihilism now emerging as a force to be reckoned with. Nonetheless, the question of how and why an enfeebling ethos of meaninglessnessand indifference came to predominate may still be of some interest.


In Fathers and Sons, Turgenev described the nihilist as one "who looks at everything critically … who does not take any principle for granted, however much that principle may be revered." But during the same period, Dostoevsky portrayed modern, passive nihilism in Notes from Underground. Its protagonist was merely disgruntled, and lacked the passion and conviction necessary to hold convention to the flame of critique.


During the following century, it appears, the sense that nothing matters became widespread. One current among others, quite obviously, but a growing one. Nothing counts more than anything else, so nothing really counts. Nietzsche had said that nihilism "stands at the door" of modern civilization, and that door opened wider as the important sources of meaning and value steadily revealed themselves as inconsequential and irrelevant, unequal to the rigors of modern life.


Heidegger found in nihilism "the fundamental movement of the history of the West," and what was the bane of the nineteenth century became, by the 1990s, a banality. Nihilism, in the current postmodern clime, is simply the matter-of-fact state of mind of our period—so widespread today is the attitude that little or nothing is compelling, authentic, or makes a difference. Distinctions of value or meaning and the value or meaning of distinctions are less and less persuasive. There is a cultural exhaustion in the movement through decadence into nihilism. According to John Gray, nihilism constitutes modernity’s "only truly universal inheritance to humankind."


That inheritance has accelerated, it seems, since the failure of the movement of the 1960s, when belief in continuous Progress had reached its peak. As utopian oases dried up, a desert of inertia and pointlessness spread. By the ’80s, with nothing to look for and nowhere to go, youth were tagged as slackers, Generation X, etc. In the summer of 1990, the New York Times called kids the generation "that couldn’t care less."


With young people looking ahead to a lifetime of strain and empty consumerism, it should surprise no one that teens’ suicide rate has tripled in the past 30 years. Or that network television now offers what amount to "snuff" programs for the jaded and bored, as the population in general experiences its life-world as more and more of a vacuum in every way. A melancholy escapism flowers in this Dead Zone, this Nowhere.


Development is a given; this cancer of a system would soon collapse without its steady onslaught. It continues its onrush into the hypermodern vista of high-tech unreality. Nietzsche saw nihilism as a consequence of the erosion of the Christian world view. But this is a superficial judgment, in many ways confusing effect with cause.


A deeper causative factor is the march of technology, in the direction of the complete industrialization of society. From the present apex of cultural homogenization and standardized life, this is easier to see than it was for Nietzsche more than a century ago. The hollowing out of the substance and texture of daily existence is being completed, a process intimately related to the near impossibility of experiencing the world without technological mediation. The overall destruction of experience speaks to the deprivation at the heart of both technology and nihilism,


With this absence of unmediated personal experience at the heart of technological progress, skyrocketing levels of stress and depression cannot be surprising. Technology mediates between individuals and nature, ultimately abolishing both. With the triumph of technology, autonomy regresses and negates itself. The promises have all been lies. One is the promise of connection, so mercilessly (though inadvertently) mocked in a recent TV commercial: "I’ve got gigabytes. I’ve got megabytes. I’m voice-mailed. I’m e-mailed. I surf the Net. I’m on the Web. I am Cyber-Man. So how come I feel so out of touch?"


A set-up whose essence is efficiency is already fundamentally nihilist. Technical rules are rapidly supplanting ethical norms by making them irrelevant. What is more efficient or less efficient holds sway, not some moral consideration, even as the systemic goals of techno-capital are shaped by the evolution of its technology. Production, based on mastery and control, becomes more visibly a process of humanity devouring itself.


When powerlessness prevails, a generalized sense of paranoia is not an illogical symptom. Similarly, a current and telling form of cynicism is technological fatalism ("There’s nothing we can do about it"), further exposing the tendency of cynicism to shade into conformity. As Horkheimer and Adorno observed, "technological rationale is the rationale of domination itself."


Understanding and responsibility succumb to an ever-increasing fragmentation, a division of labor that is always unequal and alienating. The only wholeness resides in the fundamental system that turns all else into parts. As the moral self recedes, it becomes harder to grasp the relationship of these parts to one another and to see what they are part of. Domination and nihilism’s crisis of meaning are inseparably entwined.


For Heidegger, technology constitutes the final phase of nihilism. Under its sign all talk of freedom, happiness, emancipation becomes a mockery. In fact, technology itself becomes the ideological basis of society, having destroyed the possibility of other, overt forms of justification. Engagement or belief are hardly necessary for technology’s effective rule. In this way the nagging problem of declining participation in the system can be mitigated, or deferred.


Technology is the embodiment of the totalizing system of capital, and media is an indispensable, ever more defining bridge between technology and the commodity system. If the high-tech information explosion cancels all meaning in a meaningless noise, the mass-entertainment industrial complex pumps out increasingly desperate diversions to a society of relentless consumerism.


"Infotainment" and McJournalism are the latest pop culture products of nihilism. Why bother with truth if nothing can be done about reality anyway? And yet media, like technology, is always promising solutions to problems it has created, or worsened. One example among many is the significant rise in teen smoking in the 1990s despite an enormous media campaign aimed at reducing teen smoking. Strangely enough, beefing up the media does not combat alienated behaviors.


In the United States, and soon to spread elsewhere as not less than a function of development, we witness the recent transition to an amusement society of commodified spectacles and simulations. The eclipse of nonmediated reality feeds still greater urges to escape an emptied everyday life. Massified culture works in favor of distraction, conformity, and culturally enforced stupidity. The consequent lack of authenticity produces a mass turn-off, not unrelated to the decline of literacy.


The collapse of the distinction between reality and simulation in the world of representation can be seen as the ultimate failure of the symbolic. Art, music, and other forms of symbolic culture are losing their power to pacify and console us. Simulation technologies are just the most recent steps away from lived life, toward represented life. Their failure to satisfy means that the system must turn, increasingly, to containment and control.


To protect the desolate society an alternative to that society is safely set up, by means of image technologies. As the social dimensions of human life disappear along with meaning and value, a consumer society in cyberspace becomes the next stage of human existence. We are moving steadily toward the goal of complete illusion—virtual life in a virtual reality.


Under the Juggernaut, the subject is not supposed to have any sense of social causality, structure, coherence, or motive. Virtual Reality’s merely surface experience is exactly mirrored by postmodernism’s fascination with surfaces. As the culture that can just barely still be called one, postmodernism celebrates its own depthlessness, and is thus nihilism’s essential accomplice. It comes to pervade society when too many have given up hope that they can plumb the depth and roots of the whole. Postmodern perspectives are grounded in the incapacity to specify why change might be desirable or how it might come about.


Postmodernism is fundamentally the collapse and refusal of the chance to understand the totality. This indeed is the postmodern boast, mirroring the fragmentation of life instead of challenging it. Its "politics" is that of pragmatism, the tired liberalism that accommodates to the debased norm.


Deconstruction, for example, treats every moral statement as an endlessly manipulable fragment that possesses neither meaning nor intrinsic worth. Rem Koolhaus formulates the overall PM subjugation as follows: "According to Derrida we cannot be Whole, according to Baudrillard we cannot be real, according to Virilio we cannot be There."


Postmodernism, it might be argued, expresses fewer illusions, but the basic ones remain unchallenged. Its exhausted, ironic cynicism is prostrate before the nihilist ascendancy. What could be more passive than critique-less postmodernism double talk—an ideology of acquiescence.


Falsely laying claim to the protection of the particular as against the universal, postmodernism presents no defense whatsoever against the most universalizing force of all, technology. In the guise of particularity it incarnates nothing less than the realization of technology’s universalizing Midas touch.


Postmodernism emphasizes plurality, accessibility, absence of boundaries, endless possibility. Just as consumerist society does. And just as speciously. Where culturally a glut of meaningless information and incoherent fragments hold sway, the glut of ersatz commodities provides a perfect economic parallel. The liberty that remains to us is essentially the freedom to choose among brands A, B, and C, and the KFC in Tienanmen Square expresses domination as surely as the suppression of human rights protesters there in 1989.


"Systematic consumer segmentation and micro-marketing" is the dominant model of individualism today in the nihilist ethos of listless yet restless buyers. In fact, in an overwhelmingly commodified existence, consumption becomes the number one form of entertainment. Little wonder that academic journals now seriously discuss not only the McDonaldization of society but also its Disneyization, while life is largely defined in terms of consumer styles. The cognitive and moral focus of life becomes that of consumer behavior—including, it should be noted, voting and recycling.


Nihilism has effectively leached out the substance and texture from the life-world in the painful progression by which capital and technology have reduced and debased everything in their way. There is no exit from the closed system except by the elimination of that system.


Civilization begins by myth and ends in radical doubt, to paraphrase E.M. Cioran. This may remind us that cultural radicalism, which has become such a convention, feeds the dominant system rather than undermining it. Culture, born of alienation, needs alienation to go on. We must challenge the idea of symbolic culture as well as the reality of high-tech barbarism.


Nihilism is not a one-way street with no return, rather a route that has revealed the ensemble of domination for what it is. There are now very visible signs of the possibility of breaking its hold, redeeming its long, dark night.




—from John Zerzan, Running On Emptiness: The Pathology of Civilization (Feral House), 2002, pp. 109 – 114.

film theorist siegfried kracauer on boredom — 85 years ago (!)

Siegfried Kracauer was one of the twentieth century’s most brilliant cultural critics, a daring and prolific scholar, and an incisive theorist of film…. [his] book is a celebration of the massestheir tastes, amusements, and everyday lives. Taking up themes of modernity, such as isolation and alienation, urban culture, and the relation between the group and the individual, Kracauer explores a kaleidoscope of topics: shopping arcades, the cinema, bestsellers and their readers, photography, dance, hotel lobbies, Kafka, the Bible, and boredom. For Kracauer, the most revelatory facets of modern life in the West lie on the surface, in the ephemeral and the marginal. Of special fascination to him is the United States, where he eventually settled after fleeing Germany and whose culture he sees as defined almost exclusively by "the ostentatious display of surface."






Siegfried Kracauer


People today who still have time for boredom and yet are not bored are certainly just as boring as those who never get around to being bored. For their self has vanished—the self whose presence, particularly in this so bustling world, would necessarily compel them to tarry for a while without a goal, neither here nor there.


Most people, of course, do not have much leisure time. They pursue a livelihood on which they expend all their energies, simply to earn enough for the bare necessities. To make this tiresome obligation more tolerable, they have invented a work ethic that provides a moral veil for their occupation and at least affords them a certain moral satisfaction. It would be exaggerated to claim that the pride in considering oneself an ethical being dispels every type of boredom. Yet the vulgar boredom of daily drudgery is not actually what is at issue here, since it neither kills people nor awakens them to new life, but merely expresses a dissatisfaction that would immediately disappear if an occupation more pleasant than the morally sanctioned one became available. Nevertheless, people whose duties occasionally make them yawn may be less boring than those who do their business by inclination. The latter, unhappy types, are pushed deeper and deeper into the hustle and bustle until eventually they no longer know where their head is, and the extraordinary, radical boredom that might be able to reunite them with their heads remains eternally distant for them.


There is no one, however, who has no leisure time at all. The office is not a permanent sanctuary, and Sundays are an institution. Thus in principle, those beautiful hours of free time everyone would have the opportunity to rouse himself into real boredom. But although one wants to do nothing, things are done to one: the world makes sure that one does not find oneself. And even if one perhaps isn’t interested in it, the world itself is much too interested for one to find the peace and quiet necessary to be as thoroughly bored with the world as it ultimately deserves.


In the evening one saunters through the streets, replete with an unfulflllment from which a fullness could sprout. Illuminated words glide by on the rooftops, and already one is banished from one’s own emptiness into the alien advertisement. One’s body takes root in the asphalt, and, together with the enlightening revelations of the illuminations, one’s Spirit—which is no longer one’s own—roams ceaselessly out of the night and into the night. If only it were allowed to disappear! But, like Pegasus prancing on a carousel, this spirit must run in circles and may never tire of praising tohigh heaven the glory of a liqueur and the merit of the best five-cent cigarette. Some sort of magic spurs that spirit relentlessly amid the thousand electric bulbs, out of which it constitutes and reconstitutes itself into glittering sentences.


Should the spirit by chance return at some point, it soon takes its leave in order to allow itself to be cranked away in various guises in a movie theater. It squats as a fake Chinaman in a fake opium den, transforms itself into a trained dog that performs ludicrously clever tricks to please a film diva, gathers up into a storm amid towering mountain peaks, and turns into both a circus artist and a lion at the same time. How could it resist these metamorphoses? The posters swoop into the empty space that the spirit itself would not mind pervading; they drag it in front of the silver screen, which is as barren as an emptied-out palazzo. And once the images begin to emerge one after another, there is nothing left in the world besides their evanescence. One forgets oneself in the process of gawking, and the huge dark hole is animated with the Illusion of a life that belongs to no one and exhausts everyone.


Radio likewise vaporizes beings, even before they have intercepted a single spark. Since many people feel compelled to broadcast, one finds oneself in a state of permanent receptivity, constantly pregnant with London, the Eiffel Tower, and Berlin. Who would want to resist the invitation of those dainty headphones? They gleam in living rooms and entwine themselves around heads all by themselves; and instead of fostering cultivated conversation (which certainly can be a bore), one becomes a playground for worldwide noises that, regardless of their own potentially objective boredom, do not even grant one’s modest right to personal boredom. Silent and lifeless, people sit side by side as if their souls were wandering about far awav. But these souls are not wandering according to their own preference; they are badgered by the news hounds, and soon no one can tell anymore who is the hunter and who is the hunted. Even in the cafe, where one wants to roll up into a ball like a porcupine and become aware of one’s insignificance, an imposing loudspeaker effaces every trace of private existence. The announcements it blares forth dominate the space of the concert intermissions, and the waiters (who are listening to it themselves) indignantly refuse the unreasonable requests to get rid of this gramophonic mimicry.


As one is enduring this species of antennal fate, the five continents are drawing ever closer. In truth, it is not we who extend ourselves out toward them; rather, it is their cultures that appropriate us in their boundless imperialism. It is as if one were having one of those dreams provoked by an empty stomach: a tiny ball rolls toward you from very far away, expands into a close-up, and finally roars right over you. You can neither stop it nor escape it, but lie there chained, a helpless little doll swept away by the giant colossus in whose ambit it expires. Flight is impossible. Should the Chinese imbroglio be tactfully disembroiled, one is sure to be harried by an American boxing match: the Occident remains omnipresent, whether one acknowledges it or not. All the world-historical events on this planet—not only the current ones but also past events, whose love of life knows no shame—have only one desire: to set up a rendezvous wherever they suppose us to be present. But the masters are not to be found in their quarters. They’ve gone on a trip, having long since ceded the chambers to the ‘surprise party’ that occupies the rooms, pretending to be the masters. But what if one refuses to allow oneself to be chased away? Then boredom becomes the only proper occupation, since it provides a kind of guarantee that one is, so to speak, still in control of one’s own existence. If one were never bored, one would presumably not really be present at all and would thus be merely one more object of boredom, as was claimed at the outset. One would light up on the rooftops or spool by as a filmstrip. But if indeed one ¡s present, one would have no choice but to be bored by the ubiquitous abstract racket that does not allow one to exist, and, at the same time, to find oneself boring for existing in it.


On a sunny afternoon when everyone is outside, one would do best to hang about in the train station or, better yet, stay at home, draw the curtains, and surrender oneself to one’s boredom on the sofa. Shrouded in tristezza, one flirts with ideas that even become quite respectable in the process, and one considers various projects that, for no reason, pretend to be serious. Eventually one becomes content to do nothing more than be with oneself, without knowing what one actually should be doing—sympathetically touched by the mere glass grasshopper on the tabletop that cannot jump because it is made of glass and by the silliness of a little cactus plant that thinks nothing of its own whimsicality. Frivolous, like these decorative creations, one harbors only an inner restlessness without a goal, a longing that is pushed aside, and a weariness with that which exists without really being.


If, however, one has the patience, the sort of patience specific to legitimate boredom, then one experiences a kind of bliss that is almost unearthly. A landscape appears in which colorful peacocks strut about, and images of people suffused with soul come into view. And look—your own soul is likewise swelling, and in ecstasy you name what you have always lacked: the great passion. Were this passion—which shimmers like a comet—to descend, were it to envelop you, the others, and the world—oh, then boredom would come to an end, and everything that exists would be . . .


Yet people remain distant images, and the great passion fizzles out on the horizon. And in the boredom that refuses to abate, one hatches bagatelles that are as boring as this one.


—first published in 1924. In Siegfried Kracauer, The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays (1995)

frederic jameson on the disappearance of the individual subject and the practice of pastiche

"Cultural production is thereby driven back inside a mental space which is no longer that of the old monadic subject but rather that of some degraded collective ‘objective spirit’: it can no longer gaze directly on some putative real world, at some reconstruction of a past history which was once itself a present; rather, as in Plato’s cave, it must trace our mental images of that past upon its confining walls. If there is any realism left here, it is a ‘realism’ that is meant to derive from the shock of grasping that confinement and of slowly becoming aware of a new and original historical situation in which we are condemned to seek History by way of our own pop images and simulacra of that history, which itself remains forever out of reach." 

—Frederic Jameson

The disappearance of the individual subject, along with its formal consequence, the increasing unavailability of the personal style, engender the well-nigh universal practice today of what may be called pastiche. This concept, which we owe to Thomas Mann (in Doktor Faustus), who owed it in turn to Adorno’s great work on the two paths of advanced musical experimentation (Schoenberg’s innovative planification and Stravinsky’s irrational eclecticism), is to be sharply distinguished from the more readily received idea of parody.

To be sure, parody found a fertile area in the idiosyncracies of the moderns and their "inimitable" styles: the Faulknerian long sentence, for example, with its breathless gerundives; Lawrentian nature imagery punctuated by testy colloquialism; Wallace Stevens’s inveterate hypostasis of nonsubstantive parts of speech ("the intricate evasions of as"); the fateful (but finally predictable) swoops in Mahler from high orchestral pathos into village accordion sentiment; Heidegger’s meditative-solemn practice of the false etymology as a mode of "proof" . . . All these strike one as somehow characteristic, insofar as they ostentatiously deviate from a norm which then reasserts itself, in a not necessarily unfriendly way, by a systematic mimicry of their willful eccentricities.

Yet in the dialectical leap from quantity to quality, the explosion of modern literature into a host of distinct private styles and mannerisms has been followed by a linguistic fragmentation of social life itself to the point where the norm itself is eclipsed: reduced to a neutral and reified media speech (far enough from the Utopian aspirations of the inventors of Esperanto or Basic English), which itself then becomes but one more idiolect among many. Modernist styles thereby become postmodernist codes. And that the stupendous proliferation of social codes today into professional and disciplinary jargons (but also into the badges of affirmation of ethnic, gender, race, religious, and class-factional adhesion) is also a political phenomenon, the problem of micropolitics sufficiently demonstrates. If the ideas of a ruling class were once the dominant (or hegemonic) ideology of bourgeois society, the advanced capitalist countries today are now a field of stylistic and discursive heterogeneity without a norm. Faceless masters continue to inflect the economic strategies which constrain our existences, but they no longer need to impose their speech (or are henceforth unable to); and the postliteracy of the late capitalist world reflects not only the absence of any great collective project but also the unavailability of the older national language itself.

In this situation parody finds itself without a vocation; it has lived, and that strange new thing pastiche slowly comes to take its place. Pastiche is, like parody, the imitation of a peculiar or unique, idiosyncratic style, the wearing of a linguistic mask, speech in a dead language. But it is a neutral practice of such mimicry, without any of parody’s ulterior motives, amputated of the satiric impulse, devoid of laughter and of any conviction that alongside the abnormal tongue you have momentarily borrowed, some healthy linguistic normality still exists. Pastiche is thus blank parody, a statue with blind eyeballs: it is to parody what that other interesting and historically original modern thing, the practice of a kind of blank irony, is to what Wayne Booth calls the "stable ironies" of the eighteenth century.

It would therefore begin to seem that Adorno’s prophetic diagnosis has been realized, albeit in a negative way: not Schönberg (the sterility of whose achieved system he already glimpsed) but Stravinsky is the true precursor of postmodern cultural production. For with the collapse of the high-modernist ideology of style — what is as unique and unmistakable as your own fingerprints, as incomparable as your own body (the very source, for an early Roland Barthes, of stylistic invention and innovation) — the producers of culture have nowhere to turn but to the past: the imitation of dead styles, speech through all the masks and voices stored up in the imaginary museum of a now global culture.

This situation evidently determines what the architecture historians call "historicism," namely, the random cannibalization of all the styles of the past, the play of random stylistic allusion, and in general what Henri Lefebvre has called the increasing primacy of the "neo." This omnipresence of pastiche is not incompatible with a certain humor, however, nor is it innocent of all passion: it is at the least compatible with addiction — with a whole historically original consumer’s appetite for a world transformed into sheer images of itself and for pseudo-events and "spectacles" (the term of the situationists). It is for such objects that we may reserve Plato’s conception of the "simulacrum," the identical copy for which no original has ever existed. Appropriately enough, the culture of the simulacrum comes to life in a society where exchange value has been generalized to the point at which the very memory of use value is effaced, a society of which Guy Debord has observed, in an extraordinary phrase, that in it "the image has become the final form of commodity reification" (The Society of the Spectacle).

The new spatial logic of the simulacrum can now be expected to have a momentous effect on what used to be historical time. The past is thereby itself modified: what was once, in the historical novel as Lukacs defines it, the organic genealogy of the bourgeois collective project — what is still, for the redemptive historiography of an E. P Thompson or of American "oral history," for the resurrection of the dead of anonymous and silenced generations, the retrospective dimension indispensable to any vital reorientation of our collective future — has meanwhile itself become a vast collection of images, a multitudinous photographic simulacrum. Guy Debord’s powerful slogan is now even more apt for the "prehistory" of a society bereft of all historicity, one whose own putative past is little more than a set of dusty spectacles. In faithful conformity to poststructuralist linguistic theory, the past as "referent" finds itself gradually bracketed, and then effaced altogether, leaving us with nothing but texts.

Yet it should not be thought that this process is accompanied by indifference: on the contrary, the remarkable current intensification of an addiction to the photographic image is itself a tangible symptom of an omnipresent, omnivorous, and well-nigh libidinal historicism. As I have already observed, the architects use this (exceedingly polysemous) word for the complacent eclecticism of postmodern architecture, which randomly and without principle but with gusto cannibalizes all the architectural styles of the past and combines them in overstimulating ensembles. Nostalgia does not strike one as an altogether satisfactory word for such fascination (particularly when one thinks of the pain of a properly modernist nostalgia with a past beyond all but aesthetic retrieval), yet it directs our attention to what is a culturally far more generalized manifestation of the process in commercial art and taste, namely the so-called nostalgia film (or what the French call la mode retro).

Nostalgia films restructure thewhole issue of pastiche and project it onto a collective and social level, where the desperate attempt to appropriate a missing past is now refracted through the iron law of fashion change and the emergent ideology of the generation. The inaugural film of this new aesthetic discourse, George Lucas’s American Graffiti (1973), set out to recapture, as so many films have attempted since, the henceforth mesmerizing lost reality of the Eisenhower era; and one tends to feel, that for Americans at least, the 1950s remain the privileged lost object of desire7 — not merely the stability and prosperity of a pax Americana but also the first naive innocence of the countercultural impulses of early rock and roll and youth gangs (Coppola’s Rumble Fish will then be the contemporary dirge that laments their passing, itself, however, still contradictorily filmed in genuine nostalgia film style). With this initial breakthrough, other generational periods open up for aesthetic colonization: as witness the stylistic recuperation of the American and the Italian 1930s, in Polanski’s Chinatown and Bertolucci’s Il Conformista, respectively. More interesting, and more problematical, are the ultimate attempts, through this new discourse, to lay siege either to our own present and immediate past or to a more distant history that escapes individual existential memory.

Faced with these ultimate objects — our social, historical, and existential present, and the past as "referent" — the incompatibility of a postmodernist "nostalgia" art language with genuine historicity becomes dramatically apparent. The contradiction propels this mode, however, into complex and interesting new formal inventiveness; it being understood that the nostalgia film was never a matter of some old-fashioned "representation" of historical content, but instead approached the "past" through stylistic connotation, conveying "pastness" by the glossy qualities of the image, and "1930s-ness" or "1950s-ness" by the attributes of fashion (in that following the prescription of the Barthes of Mythologies, who saw connotation as the purveying of imaginary and stereotypical idealities: "Sinité," for example, as some Disney-EPCOT "concept" of China).

The insensible colonization of the present by the nostalgia mode can be observed in Lawrence Kasdan’s elegant film Body Heat, a distant "affluent society" remake of James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity, set in a contemporary Florida small town a few hours’ drive from Miami. The word remake is, however, anachronistic to the degree to which our awareness of the preexistence of other versions (previous films of the novel as well as the novel itself) is now a constitutive and essential part of the film’s structure: we are now, in other words, in "intertextuality" as a deliberate, built-in feature of the aesthetic effect and as the operator of a new connotation of "pastness" and pseudohistorical depth, in which the history of aesthetic styles displaces "real" history.

Yet from the outset a whole battery of aesthetic signs begin to distance the officially contemporary image from us in time: the art deco scripting of the credits, for example, serves at once to program the spectator to the appropriate "nostalgia" mode of reception (art deco quotation has much the same function in contemporary architecture, as in Toronto’s remarkable EatonCentre).8 Meanwhile, a somewhat different play of connotations is activated by complex (but purely formal) allusions to the institution of the star system itself. The protagonist, William Hurt, is one of a new generation of film "stars" whose status is markedly distinct from that of the preceding generation of male superstars, such as Steve McQueen or Jack Nicholson (or even, more distantly, Brando), let alone of earlier moments in the evolution of the institution of the star. The immediately preceding generation projected their various roles through and by way of their well-known off-screen personalities, which often connoted rebellion and nonconformism. The latest generation of starring actors continues to assure the conventional functions of stardom (most notably sexuality) but in the utter absence of "personality" in the older sense, and with something of the anonymity of character acting (which in actors like Hurt reaches virtuoso proportions, yet of a very different kind than the virtuosity of the older Brando or Olivier). This "death of the subject" in the institution of the star now, however, opens up the possibility of a play of historical allusions to much older roles — in this case to those associated with Clark Gable — so that the very style of the acting can now also serve as a "connotator" of the past.

Finally, the setting has been strategically framed, with great ingenuity, to eschew most of the signals that normally convey the contemporaneity of the United States in its multinational era: the small-town setting allows the camera to elude the high-rise landscape of the 1970s and 1980s (even though a key episode in the narrative involves the fatal destruction of older buildings by land speculators), while the object world of the present day — artifacts and appliances, whose styling would at once serve to date the image — is elaborately edited out. Everything in the film, therefore, conspires to blur its official contemporaneity and make it possible for the viewer to receive the narrative as though it were set in some eternal thirties, beyond real historical time. This approach to the present by way of the art language of the simulacrum, or of the pastiche of the stereotypical past, endows present reality and the openness of present history with the spell and distance of a glossy mirage. Yet this mesmerizing new aesthetic mode itself emerged as an elaborated symptom of the waning of our historicity, of our lived possibility of experiencing history in some active way. It cannot therefore be said to produce this strange occultation of the present by its own formal power, but rather merely to demonstrate, through these inner contradictions, the enormity of a situation in which we seem increasingly incapable of fashioning representations of our own current experience.

As for "real history" itself — the traditional object, however it may be defined, of what used to be the historical novel — it will be more revealing now to turn back to that older form and medium and to read its postmodern fate in the work of one of the few serious and innovative leftist novelists at work in the United States today, whose books are nourished with history in the more traditional sense and seem, so far, to stake out successive generational moments in the "epic" of American history, between which they alternate. E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime gives itself officially as a panorama of the first two decades of the century (like World’s Fair); his most recent novel, Billy Bathgate, like Loon Lake addresses the thirties and the Great Depression, while The Book of Daniel holds up before us, in painful juxtaposition, the two great moments of the Old Left and the New Left, of thirties and forties communism and the radicalism of the 1960s (even his early western may be said to fit into this scheme and to designate in a less articulated and formally self-conscious way the end of the frontier of the late nineteenth century).

The Book of Daniel is not the only one of these five major historical novels to establish an explicit narrative link between the reader’s and the writer’s present and the older historical reality that is the subject of the work; the astonishing last page of Loon Lake, which I will not disclose, also does this in a very different way; it is a matter of some interest to note that the first version of Ragtime9 positions us explicitly in our own present, in the novelist’s house in New Rochelle, New York, which at once becomes the scene of its own (imaginary) past in the 1900s. This detail has been suppressed from the published text, symbolically cutting its moorings and freeing the novel to float in some new world of past historical time whose relationship to us is problematical indeed. The authenticity of the gesture, however, may be measured by the evident existential fact of life that there no longer does seem to be any organic relationship between the American history we learn from schoolbooks and the lived experience of the current multinational, high-rise, stagflated city of the newspapers and of our own everyday life.

A crisis in historicity, however, inscribes itself symptomatically in several other curious formal features within this text. Its official subject is the transition from a pre-World War I radical and working-class politics (the great strikes) to the technological invention and new commodity production of the 1920s (the rise of Hollywood and of the image as commodity): the interpolated version of Kleist’s Michael Kohlhaas, the strange, tragic episode of the black protagonist’s revolt, may be thought of as a moment related to this process. That Ragtime has political content and even something like a political "meaning" seems in any case obvious and has been expertly articulated by Linda Hutcheon in terms of

its three paralleled families: the Anglo-American establishment one and the marginal immigrant European and American black ones. The novel’s action disperses the center of the first and moves the margins into the multiple "centers" of the narrative, in a formal allegory of the social demographics of urban America. In addition, there is an extended critique of American democratic ideals through the presentation of class conflict rooted in capitalist property and moneyed power. The black Coalhouse, the white Houdini, the immigrant Tateh are all working class, and because of this — not in spite of it — all can therefore work to create new aesthetic forms (ragtime, vaudeville, movies).10

But this does everything but the essential, lending the novel an admirable thematic coherence few readers can have experienced in parsing the lines of a verbal object held too close to the eyes to fall into these perspectives. Hutcheon is, of course, absolutely right, and this is what the novel would have meant had it not been a postmodern artifact. For one thing, the objects of representation, ostensibly narrative characters, are incommensurable and, as it were, of incomparable substances, like oil and water — Houdini being a historical figure, Tateh a fictional one, and Coalhouse an intertextual one — something very difficult for an interpretive comparison of this kind to register. Meanwhile, the theme attributed to the novel also demands a somewhat different kind of scrutiny, since it can be rephrased into a classic version of the Left’s "experience of defeat" in the twentieth century, namely, the proposition that the depolitization of the workers’ movement is attributable to the media or culture generally (what she here calls "new aesthetic forms"). This is, indeed, in my opinion, something like the elegiac backdrop, if not the meaning, of Ragtime, and perhaps of Doctorow’s work in general; but then we need another way of describing the novel as something like an unconscious expression and associative exploration of this left doxa, this historical opinion or quasi-vision in the mind’s eye of "objective spirit." What such a description would want to register is the paradox that a seemingly realistic novel like Ragtime is in reality a nonrepresentational work that combines fantasy signifiers from a variety of ideologemes in a kind of hologram.

My point, however, is not some hypothesis as to the thematic coherence of this decentered narrative but rather just the opposite, namely, the way in which the kind of reading this novel imposes makes it virtually impossible for us to reach and thematize those official "subjects" which float above the text but cannot be integrated into our reading of the sentences. In that sense, the novel not only resists interpretation, it is organized systematically and formally to short-circuit an older type of social and historical interpretation which it perpetually holds out and withdraws. When we remember that the theoretical critique and repudiation of interpretation as such is a fundamental component of poststructuralist theory, it is difficult not to conclude that Doctorow has somehow deliberately built this very tension, this very contradiction, into the flow of his sentences.

The book is crowded with real historical figures — from Teddy Roosevelt to Emma Goldman, from Harry K. Thaw and Stanford White to J. Pierpont Morgan and Henry Ford, not to mention the more central role of Houdini — who interact with a fictive family, simply designated as Father, Mother, Older Brother, and so forth. All historical novels, beginning with those of Sir Walter Scott himself, no doubt in one way or another involve a mobilization of previous historical knowledge generally acquired through the schoolbook history manuals devised for whatever legitimizing purpose by this or that national tradition — thereafter instituting a narrative dialectic between what we already "know" about The Pretender, say, and what he is then seen to be concretely in the pages of the novel. But Doctorow’s procedure seems much more extreme than this; and I would argue that the designation of both types of characters — historical names and capitalized family roles — operates powerfully and systematically to reify all these characters and to make it impossible for us to receive their representation without the prior interception of already acquired knowledge or doxa — something which lends the text an extraordinary sense of deja vu and a peculiar familiarity one is tempted to associate with Freud’s "return of the repressed" in "The Uncanny" rather than with any solid historiographic formation on the reader’s part.

Meanwhile, the sentences in which all this is happening have their own specificity, allowing us more concretely to distinguish the moderns’ elaboration of a personal style from this new kind of linguistic innovation, which is no longer personal at all but has its family kinship rather with what Barthes long ago called "white writing." In this particular novel, Doctorow has imposed upon himself a rigorous principle of selection in which only simple declarative sentences (predominantly mobilized by the verb "to be") are received. The effect is, however, not really one of the condescending simplification and symbolic carefulness of children’s literature, but rather something moredisturbing, the sense of some profound subterranean violence done to American English, which cannot, however, be detected empirically in any of the perfectly grammatical sentences with which this work is formed. Yet other more visible technical "innovations" may supply a clue to what is happening in the language of Ragtime: it is, for example, well known that the source of many of the characteristic effects of Camus’s novel The Stranger can be traced back to that author’s willful decision to substitute, throughout, the French tense of the passe compose for the other past tenses more normally employed in narration in that language.11 I suggest that it is as if something of that sort were at work here: as though Doctorow had set out systematically to produce the effect or the equivalent, in his language, of a verbal past tense we do not possess in English, namely, the French preterite (or passe simple), whose "perfective" movement, as Emile Benveniste taught us, serves to separate events from the present of enunciation and to transform the stream of time and action into so many finished, complete, and isolated punctual event objects which find themselves sundered from any present situation (even that of the act of story telling or enunciation).

E. L. Doctorow is the epic poet of the disappearance of the American radical past, of the suppression of older traditions and moments of the American radical tradition: no one with left sympathies can read these splendid novels without a poignant distress that is an authentic way of confronting our own current political dilemmas in the present. What is culturally interesting, however, is that he has had to convey this great theme formally (since the waning of the content is very precisely his subject) and, more than that, has had to elaborate his work by way of that very cultural logic of the postmodern which is itself the mark and symptom of his dilemma. Loon Lake much more obviously deploys the strategies of the pastiche (most notably in its reinvention of Dos Passos); but Ragtime remains the most peculiar and stunning monument to the aesthetic situation engendered by the disappearance of the historical referent. This historical novel can no longer set out to represent the historical past; it can only "represent" our ideas and stereotypes about that past (which thereby at once becomes "pop history"). Cultural production is thereby driven back inside a mental space which is no longer that of the old monadic subject but rather that of some degraded collective "objective spirit": it can no longer gaze directly on some putative real world, at some reconstruction of a past history which was once itself a present; rather, as in Plato’s cave, it must trace our mental images of that past upon its confining walls. If there is any realism left here, it is a "realism" that is meant to derive from the shock of grasping that confinement and of slowly becoming aware of a new and original historical situation in which we are condemned to seek History by way of our own pop images and simulacra of that history, which itself remains forever out of reach.


7. For further on the 50s, see chapter 9.

8. See also "Art Deco," in my Signatures of the Visible (Routledge, 1990).

9. "Ragtime," American Review no.20 (April 1974): 1-20.

10. Lynda Hutcheon, A Poetics of Postmodernism (1988), pp.61-2.

11. Jean-Paul Sartre, "L’Etranger de Camus," in Situations II (Paris, Gallimard. 1948).


—from Fredric Jameson’s Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Duke UP, 1991.


french girls are dirty! french intellectuals more so!

“rape creates the best hookers… once opened by force, they sometimes retain a sort of skin-level burnished quality that men like”



A new movement of hardcore feminism has gripped French culture, uniting writers and filmmakers in a bid to subvert culture’s age-old treatment of women. Is this liberation, or just porn in another guise?

Elizabeth Day

The Observer, Sunday 18 January 2009

Most people expect Virginie Despentes to be angry. Perhaps they have seen the film she directed nine years ago, Baise-moi, a highly explicit rampage of sex and violence where a man gets beaten to death by two women simply for wanting to wear a condom.

Perhaps they have read the 1994 novel it was based on, also called Baise-moi, in which the two rage-fuelled anti-heroines shoot dead a three-year-old child in a sweet shop. Perhaps they know from interviews that Despentes was raped at 17 and that, for a brief time afterwards, she earned her living as a prostitute. “Rape creates the best hookers,” she writes in her new book, King Kong Theory. “Once opened by force, they sometimes retain a sort of skin-level burnished quality that men like.”

Whatever the reason, people expect the 39-year-old Despentes to be wild-eyed and furious. But the woman who buzzes me into her flat on the outskirts of Barcelona speaks in hesitations and half-smiles. She seems nervous, almost girlish, twirling strands of her shoulder-length dirty blond hair as she talks. She smokes a constant stream of Chesterfields, but not before asking if I mind. An excitable pitbull terrier called Pepa skitters around the parquet floor. I thought you were going to be terrifying, I say. “I know,” she replies. “I get that a lot. But I can be conflicted. Most of the time, I am quite calm and shy.” Is she less angry than she used to be? “No,” she says, with a short, dry chuckle. “Anger must be my essential component.”

Baise-moi (translation: Fuck Me) lit the touchpaper for a new movement of French extremism in cinema and literature. The movie, which starred two former porn actresses, proved so shocking that it became the first film in France to be banned for 28 years and was only released after an outcry from anti-censorship campaigners.

With its depictions of graphic sex and nihilistic violence, the film has become the visual mascot of a new wave of hardcore feminism in France that seeks to subvert traditionally male boundaries with a savage and frequently uncomfortable honesty. Just as French women have begun to emerge in the political arena – Ségolène Royal was the first female presidential candidate in 2007; almost half the members of Sarkozy’s cabinet are women – so they have also started to demolish cultural stereotypes.

In her 2002 memoir, The Sexual Life of Catherine M, the author Catherine Millet details with unflinching precision her childhood experiences of masturbation and her adult predilection for group sex. Her new book, Jealousy: The Other Life of Catherine M, examines the debilitating nature of her own envy when she discovered her husband was also having affairs. It, too, describes her masturbation fantasies, but neither work was written to titillate amale audience. “For me, a pornographic book is functional, written to help you to get excited,” she explains. “If you want to speak about sex in a novel or any ‘ambitious’ writing, today, in the 21st century, you must be explicit. You cannot be metaphorical any longer.”

Similarly, Catherine Breillat’s 1999 film Romance blurs the line between porn and erotic provocation, taking sexual images out of their usual context and making them deliberately unappealing – a woman’s genitalia, for instance, is filmed as she gives birth. “People asked why I filmed the birth face-on,” said Breillat. “I say: ‘Because you’re asking me that question.'” Despentes puts it another way: “The point is not to be shocking but to change the shape of things.”

France has a long tradition of writers and artists who have propagated their own challenging visions of sexuality – from the Marquis de Sade’s sadomasochistic reveries to Georges Bataille’s explorations of the ambiguity of sex as a subversive force in Blue of Noon. More recently, Michel Houellebecq’s work has included unsparing descriptions of sexual conquest.

But it is only relatively recently that women have felt able to tackle these same themes in public. As late as 1954, Story of O, an erotic novel of dominance and submission written by Anne Desclos, was published under a pseudonym. In 1968, while students were shouting Marxist slogans from the barricades, French women were still not allowed to wear trousers to work, and wives required their husband’s permission to open a bank account.

The paradoxical relationship between misogyny and liberality in France meant that when Despentes broke through the gender divide, she did so in spectacular style. Baise-moi blazed the trail for other female artists who sought to shatter cultural and sexual taboos, including the director Claire Denis, whose 2001 film Trouble Every Day depicts a female cannibal sated only when she consumes the bodies of her ill-fated lovers. Less brutal, and yet equally revealing in its own muted fashion, Christine Jordis’s 2005 novel Rapture was a candid account of erotic love and sexual abandon. The intention of these women, it seems, is to reappropriate the traditionally male preserves of sex, pornography and aggression by bringing them firmly into the female sphere.

Despentes’s new book, King Kong Theory, gives them a manifesto. Part memoir, part political pamphlet, it is a furious condemnation of the “servility” of enforced femininity and was a bestseller in France – the title refers to her contention that she is “more King Kong than Kate Moss”. Superficial femininity, she argues, must be challenged so that women become free to act as they really are, rather than how their menfolk most want them to appear. It also deals with Despentes’s experience of rape. In 1986, when she and a female friend were hitch-hiking back from Paris to their home town of Nancy, the two girls were picked up by three men who attacked them. Despentes explains that while many rape victims respond by feeling misplaced guilt – as though they brought the attack on themselves by being too conspicuously female; as though their mere survival indicated they somehow “wanted it” – her conscious response was anger. She chose fury. That was how she coped.

It is no coincidence that Manu, one of the two female protagonists in Baise-moi, is brutally raped by three men before embarking on her indiscriminate killing spree. Her reaction is the traditionally male response of undiluted aggression. “Girls are never, never taught to be violent,” says Despentes. “We are accustomed to seeing women being killed [in films], being really afraid, covered in blood. I think it’s good to see the counterpoint.”

Femininity, she says, has had to become harmless in order to reassure a 21st-century masculinity that finds itself in crisis. So that “ugly women” or threatening women, women who are too aggressive or ambitious, violent women who kill on a whim, women who choose to sell sex for a living, are deliberately sidelined and ignored. According to Despentes, they are not part of the socially acceptable face of femaleness. “There should be dozens of movies showing lots of violent, angry, sexually active women getting really wild,” she says, taking a languid drag on her cigarette.

Not everyone agrees. When the film of Baise-moi was released, it was almost universally denounced as crude, profane and “tediously bleak”. One reviewer described it as “Thelma & Louise as scripted by Lorena Bobbitt”. In 2005 the critic James Quandt wrote an influential article for Artforum in which he coined the term “New French Extremity” and described the current vogue for French hardcore cinema as a determination “to wade in rivers of viscera and spumes of sperm, to fill each frame with flesh, nubile or gnarled, and subject it to all manner of penetration, mutilation and defilement”.

Although Breillat, Despentes, Denis, Millet and their peers might claim their work has a philosophical or artistic rationale, how far can one intellectualise exploitation? Is pornographic content any more acceptable for being played out in the guise of the political? Is indiscriminate violence on film or in books any more justified for supposedly being a comment on female empowerment? “These women are operating in a traditionally male milieu,” says Ginette Vincendeau, a professor of film studies at King’s College, London, “and the price they have to pay is to tone their feminism down, so they make films that explore sexuality and sexual difference but are not threatening to the male establishment. There is something in there for the men to enjoy too, if you like.”

The killing in Baise-moi is depicted as a cartoonish, randomised cruelty that makes minimal narrative sense. The sex scenes, too, often seem to sail rather too close to the pornographic objectification they are meant to be challenging. “The comparison is surprising to me,” says Despentes when I put this to her. “I didn’t meet many men who told me how excited they were by Baise-moi. Excitement is not the point of it.”

And yet, in King Kong Theory, she derides the trend for “hooker chic” – for adolescents to dress in provocatively adult clothes. Does she acknowledge that her own work, with its gun-toting females in G-strings and leopard print, has its part to play in glamorising precisely this sort of teenage behaviour? Her reply is unequivocal. “If young people were really influenced by movies, we would be in real trouble. You don’t go out of a movie and do what you’ve just seen.”

Despentes insists her work is a challenge to the unquestioned supremacy of the male viewpoint in both film and literature. As opposed to using female porn stars as wordless vehicles of male lust – their faces out of shot, their dialogue restricted to orgasmic grunts – both Despentes and Breillat deliberately put them at the centre of their work. They become active participants: in charge of the action, rather than subjected to it. In the literary sphere, Millet and Jordis choose to explore the female sexual experience rather than the male – inpart, their work is shocking because we are so unused to hearing a woman speak about sex like a man.

In this respect, the new French feminists have been influenced by the existentialist philosophies of Simone de Beauvoir. “Man today represents the positive and the neutral,” de Beauvoir writes in The Second Sex, “whereas woman is only the negative, the female.” The Belgian-born philosopher Luce Irigaray carries this one step further: “One must assume the feminine role deliberately, which means already to convert a form of subordination into an affirmation, and thus to thwart it.”

Beyond the theorising, however, there lies the simpler goal of showing things as they really are. After centuries of concealment within the dark folds of patriarchy, these women seek to reclaim their space and illuminate their experience. Just as Despentes decries the social pressure for “ugly women” to prettify themselves in King Kong Theory, so Baise-moi deliberately set out to depict the sexual act in its myriad forms. It might disturb rather than arouse, and it might challenge rather than comfort, but at least it does not patronise us with the soft-focus romantic myth peddled by the mainstream. In Intimacy, the 2001 movie adaptation of Hanif Kureishi’s novel, the French director Patrice Chéreau filmed several explicit sex scenes, including one that depicts the heroine, Claire, fellating her lover. Kerry Fox, the actress who played Claire, said she was drawn to the part precisely because “I felt the way that sex was represented [in traditional cinema] was very false. It is not an artist’s duty to shock. Shock might be a by-product but it is an artist’s duty to portray reality. It’s about encouraging people to understand others in a way they haven’t before.”

Back in Barcelona, the ashtray on Virginie Despentes’s living room table is half full of crumpled cigarette butts. As I leave, she is powdering her face with a small mirrored compact in preparation for the photograph. Despentes is, as she admits, a contradictory mass of different characteristics. She can be angry and yet she can be sweet; tough yet fragile; she can decry enforced femininity and yet she can care enough to put on make-up for a photograph. She is, like her characters, a woman of multiple facets. For all the controversy generated by the new wave of French feminism, maybe this is what lies at its heart: the permission for women to be themselves, however conflicted they might be and however uneasily it sits with conventional notions of what it is to be female. It is the permission, perhaps, for a woman to be more King Kong than Kate Moss.

King Kong Theory is published by Serpent’s Tail


Paris intellectuals make case for porn

Film festival’s X-rated action is ‘by and for women’

Lizzy Davies in Paris

The Observer, Sunday 12 October 2008

It could only happen in the country that gave us Emmanuelle, Monica Bellucci in an anal rape scene and twoyoung actresses romping through a hyper-violent bad-girl road movie with real-life sex and a title so rude it could not be advertised on buses.

A group of French intellectuals has now gone one step further in the quest to integrate hardcore erotica into mainstream cinema by holding Paris’s first alternative pornographic film festival: a no-holds-barred celebration of X-rated action that organisers say showcases a new wave of progressive porn that not only titillates but empowers.

Gone, for the most part, are mechanical character portrayals and cringe-worthy storylines; gone, too, are films made by – and solely for – men. On show at the Brady cinema for the past three days have been dozens of productions catering to both genders and every sexual preference. With names such as Deep, Strap-on Motel and Post-Apocalyptic Cowgirls they may sound like the same old material, but those in the know claim they are revolutionary.

‘There’s a new culture of pornography emerging,’ said Maxime Cervulle, the academic who is co-organising the festival in between lecturing at the University of Paris. ‘It’s not only about breaking away from the clichés of porn – of macho sexuality, bad plots and zero aesthetic appeal – but also changing the way people are portrayed in pornography: straight women, black women, lesbians, transsexuals and gay men.’

The most striking change ushered in by the new movement is its feminisation – almost half the films on show in Paris were made by and for women. Directors such as Catherine Corringer and Maria Beatty say they are responding to a rising interest among female audiences who are growing more aware of their own sexuality but are frustrated by the patriarchal world of erotica.

Marie-Hélène Bourcier, the other organiser of the festival, who is also a university lecturer, sees the festival as an important moment in the redressing of that gender imbalance. ‘I consider myself to be a feminist, but a pro-sex feminist,’ she said. ‘I don’t see any contradiction between certain kinds of pornography and feminism. For women it can be a sort of empowerment.’

With films such as Catherine Breillat’s Romance, an explicit study of female desire, Virginie Despentes’s notorious Baise-moi and Gaspar Noé’s disturbing Irréversible, critics claim mainstream French directors have been instrumental in pornography’s evolution, for better or worse.

The movies produced howls of outrage from many observers, both on account of their graphic content and questionable cinematic merit, but their influence has been undeniable. Even the more orthodox bastion of the small screen is getting in on the act, with television channel Canal+ teaming up with several French women actors and directors for a night of raunchy courts métrages later this month. It is all part of a desire, say the festival’s supporters, to nurture a pornography that reflects contemporary society more accurately.

‘I wanted to make films that would let women see themselves as they are,’ said Sophie Bramly, founder of website, which is co-ordinating the night. ‘Most women don’t recognise themselves in porn films – they’re too vulgar. And real feminine sexual pleasure is usually totally absent.’ While acknowledging the X-rated nature of the work, she refuses to describe them as ‘pornographic’. ‘These films are explicit. I don’t call them pornographic because pornography belongs to men,’ she said.

Bourcier, buoyant from the success of the festival, has no such linguistic qualms. For her the words do not matter as much as their socio-political purpose – to ‘reaffirm the populist character’ of the genre and to make it something people can identify with.

‘Pornography is a marginalised but populist genre and in this sense it is a reflection of social tensions,’ said Cervulle. ‘When minorities take part in this socially popular form of expression, they have the chance to break free of the dominant cultural force.’




jürgen habermas explains the twentieth century—part I


Jürgen Habermas

Learning from Catastrophe?

A Look Back at the Short Twentieth Century


I. The Long Rhythms of the Century


The threshold of the twenty-first century exerts such a strong

grip on our imagination because it also leads us into a new

millennium. This calendrical turning point is itself the product

of a construction of religious history, whose starting point, the

birth of Christ, marked what we recognize in hindsight as a

break in world history. At the end of the second millennium,

the timetables of international airlines, global stock market

transactions, international scientific conventions, even rendezvous

in space are all scheduled according to the Christian

calendar. But the round numbers that punctuate this calendar

don’t match up with the plots of historical events themselves.

Years like 1900 or 2000 are meaningless in comparison to dates

such as 1914, 1945, or 1989. What’s more, these calendrical

blocs can often have the effect of concealing the very continuity

of far-reaching social trends, many of which have origins well

before the beginning of the twentieth century and will continue

well into the new millennium. Before beginning this examination

of the physiognomy of the twentieth century, then, I will

recall some of these longer rhythms that pass through the

century. Here I will mention (a) demographic changes, (b)

structural changes in the nature of employment, and (c) the

course of development of science and technology.


(a) Europe’s dramatic increase in population had its beginnings

in the early nineteenth century. Largely a result of medical

progress, this demographic change has in the meantime

largely come to a standstill in affluent societies; in the Third

World population growth has exploded since the middle of the

twentieth century. Expert opinions do not expect a stabilization

of world population — at a level of roughly 10 billion people

— before 2030. That would be a fivefold increase in global

population since 1950. Of course, a highly complicated phenomenology

hides behind this statistical trend.


At the beginning of the twentieth century, the population

explosion was described by contemporaries in terms of the

social form of “the masses.” Even then, the phenomenon was

not an entirely new one. Well before Le Bon became interested

in the “psychology of the mass,” nineteenth-century novelists

were already well acquainted with mass concentrations of

people in cities, housing blocks, factory buildings, offices, and

barracks, as well as with the mass mobilization of workers and

immigrants, demonstrators, strikers, and revolutionaries. But it

was not until the beginning of the twentieth century that massive

flows of people, mass organizations, and mass actions began

to appear intrusive enough to give rise to the vision of the

“revolt of the masses” (Ortega y Gasset). The mass mobilizations

of the Second World War, the mass misery of the concentration

camps, mass treks of refugees, and the mass chaos of

displaced persons after 1945 all exhibit a kind of collectivism

first anticipated in the illustrated title page of Hobbes’

Leviathan: countless individuals anonymously fused into the

overpowering figure of a macro-subject of collective action.

Since mid-century, however, the physiognomy of persons in

great numbers has itself undergone a change. The presence of

bodies — collected, herded together, set in motion — has given

way to the symbolic inclusion of the consciousness of the many

into ever wider networks of communication: the concentrated

masses have been transformed into a broadly dispersed public

of the mass media. Physical commercial flows, and commercial

jams, keep rising; people massing in the streets and squares

become anachronistic as individual connections are integrated

into electronic networks. Of course, this change in social perception

does not touch on the basic continuity of population growth.


(b) Similarly, structural changes in the labor system ignore

the thresholds of centuries or millennia. The introduction of

labor-saving production methods, and the subsequent increase

in productivity, is the driving force behind these structural

changes. Since the Industrial Revolution in eighteenth-century

England, economic modernization has followed the same

sequence in all countries. First, the mass of the laboring population

is shifted into the secondary sectors of manufacturing

industries from the primary agricultural work that had occupied

them for millennia. Next they shift to the tertiary sectors

of commerce, transportation, and services. Postindustrial

societies are now characterized by a quarternary sector of

knowledge-based economic activities such as high-tech industries

or the health-care sector, banking or public administration,

all of which depend on the influx of new information and,

ultimately, on research and innovation. And research and innovation,

in turn, are supported by an “educational revolution”

(Talcott Parsons) which not only eliminated illiteracy but triggered

a drastic expansion of systems of secondary and higher

education. As higher education lost its elite status, the universities

frequently became crucibles of political unrest.


Over the course of the twentieth century the pattern of these

structural changes remained invariant, while its pace accelerated.

Under a developmental dictatorship, a country like South

Korea has, since 1960, succeeded in making the jump from a

preindustrial to a postindustrial society within the space of a

single generation. This acceleration explains the new quality

that a well-established process of migration from countryside

to urban areas assumed in the second half of the twentieth

century: leaving aside sub-Saharan Africa and China, the soaring

productivity caused by mechanized agriculture has all but

depopulated the agrarian sector. In the OECD* countries, the

proportion of labor engaged in heavily subsidized agriculture

has fallen below 10 percent of the laboring population.

Counted in the phenomenological currency of lifeworld experiences,

this signifies a truly radical break with the past. The

mode of village life, which had been formative for all cultures

from the neolithic period until well into the nineteenth century,

survives only in imitation form in developed countries.

The decline of the peasantry has also revolutionized the traditional

relationship between the urban and the rural. Today,

more than 40 percent of the world’s population live in cities.

The urbanization process, as it destroys the older forms of

urban life that had arisen in premodern Europe, also destroys

the city itself. If New York, even its metropolitan center in

Manhattan, is itself already no more than vaguely reminiscent

of the great cities of the nineteenth century such as London or

Paris, then the sprawling urban areas of Mexico City, Tokyo,

Calcutta, Sao Paulo, Seoul, or Shanghai have finally exploded

the familiar dimensions of “the city.” The hazy profiles of these

megalopolises, where explosive growth is only two or three

decades old, face us with a mode of experience that we are at

a loss to comprehend.


(c) Finally, the series of social consequences of scientific and

technological progress constitutes a third continuity extending

through the twentieth century. New synthetic materials and

energy sources, new industrial, military, and medical technologies,

new means of transportation and communication have all

revolutionized modes of human interaction and forms of life,

but are all based on scientific knowledge and technical developments

from the past. Technological triumphs such as the

mastery of atomic energy and manned space travel, or innovations

like the deciphering of the genetic code and the introduction

of genetic technology into agriculture and medicine, surely

change our awareness of risks; they even touch upon our ethical

self-understanding. But in a certain sense, even these spectacular

achievements have run along familiar lines. Since the seventeenth

century, the instrumental attitude toward a scientifically

objectified nature has not changed; nor has the manner in which

we control natural processes, even if our interventions into

matter are deeper, and our ventures into space are further,

than ever before.


Technologically permeated structures of the lifeworld still

require from us laypersons the banal, routinized mode of handling

and operating machines and devices that we don’t understand;

a habitualized trust in the functioning of ongoing

technologies and processes. In complex societies, every expert

is a layperson in relation to other experts. Max Weber had

already described the “second naïveté” that emerges as we

busy ourselves with our radios and cell phones, our calculators,

video gear, or laptops — with the operation of familiar electronic

equipment whose manufacture requires the accumulated

knowledge of generations of scientists. Despite all the panicky

reactions to warnings, prognostications, and mishaps, the lifeworld’s

capacity to assimilate the strange and uncomprehended

into the familiar can only be temporarily undermined by media-

sponsored doubts about the reliability of expert knowledge and

high technology. A growing awareness of risks does not disrupt

the daily routine.


The acceleration effects of improved transport and communication

technologies have an entirely different relevance

for the long-term transformation of everyday experience. As

early as 1830, travelers on the earliest railways described a new

mode of perception of space and time. In the twentieth century,

motor traffic and civil aviation accelerated the transport of

persons and goods still further, shrinking the subjective sense of

distance even more. Space and time consciousness were also

affected by new technologies of information processing, storage,

and retrieval. Late eighteenth-century Europe already saw

the new print media of books and newspapers contribute to the

emergence of a global, future-oriented historical consciousness;

at the end of the nineteenth century Nietzsche complained of

the historicism of an educated elite that brought everything

past into the present. Since then, the thoroughgoing decoupling

of the present from the objectified pasts of museums has

reached the masses of educational tourists. The mass print

media is a child of the twentieth century too; but the time machine

effect of the print media was intensified over the

course of the century through photography, film, radio, and

television. Spatial and temporal distances are not “conquered”

any more. They vanish without trace into the ubiquitous present

of virtual realities. Digital communication finally surpasses

all other media in scope and capacity. More people have

quicker access to greater volumes of information, and are able

to process it and instantly exchange it over any distance. The

mental consequences of the Internet – which is proving much

more resistant to incorporation into the routines of the lifeworld

than a new electronic gadget — are still very hard to assess.


* Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.


jürgen habermas explains the twentieth century—part II





Jürgen Habermas

Learning from Catastrophe?

A Look Back at the Short Twentieth Century


II. Two Physiognomies of the Century


The continuities of social modernization extending through the

century can only inadequately teach us what is characteristic of

the twentieth century as such. Thus historians tend to punctuate

the historical flow of their narratives with events, rather

than trends and structural transformations. And indeed the

physiognomy of a century is molded by the caesurae of great

events. Among those historians who are still willing to think in

terms of large historical units, a consensushas emerged that the

“long” nineteenth century (1789-1914) is followed by a

“short” twentieth century (1914-89). The outbreak of the

First World War and the collapse of the Soviet Union thus

frame an antagonism that stretches through both world wars

and the Cold War. Of course, this punctuation permits three

very different interpretations, depending on where one locates

this antagonism — on the economic level of social systems, on

the political level of superpowers, or on the cultural level of

ideologies. Which hermeneutical viewpoint is chosen is, naturally

enough, itself determined by a conflict of ideas that has

dominated the century.


The Cold War is carried on today by historiographic means,

whether the terms of the conflict are described as the Soviet

Union’s challenge to the capitalist West (Eric Hobsbawm), or

the struggle of the liberal West against totalitarian regimes

(François Furet). Both interpretations explain in one way or

another the fact that only the United States emerged from the

world wars in a politically, economically, and culturally

strengthened position, and from the Cold War as the world’s

only superpower, an outcome that has labeled the twentieth

century “the American century.” The third reading of the Cold

War is more ambiguous. As long as “ideology” is employed in a

neutral sense, the title The Age of Ideologies (Hildebrand)

expresses nothing more than a variant of a theory of totalitarianism,

according to which the struggle of regimes reflects a

struggle of contending ideologies. But in another sense, the

same title signals the claim (developed by Carl Schmitt) that

since 1917 the mutually opposed utopian projects of world

democracy and world revolution, with Wilson and Lenin as

their exponents, have engaged one another in a global civil

war (Ernst Nolte). According to this ideology critique from

the Right, 1917 marks the point where history became infected

with the bacillus of the philosophy of history, and was so badly

derailed that it was not until 1989 that it was able to jump back

onto the normal tracks of pristine national histories.


Each of these three perspectives endows the short twentieth

century with a distinctive physiognomy. According to the first

reading, the century is driven by the challenge presented to the

capitalist world system by the single largest experiment ever

conducted on human beings: carried out with extreme brutality

and at the cost of enormous sacrifice, the forced industrialization

of the Soviet Union certainly set the course for its rise to

the status of a superpower, but it also left the Soviet Union

without a sound economic and social-political basis on which to

construct a superior, or even a viable, alternative to the Western

model. The second reading sees the century under the shadow

of a totalitarianism that broke entirely with the civilizing forces

ushered in by the Enlightenment, destroying the hopes for a

domestication of state power and a humanization of social

relations. The boundless violence of regimes engaging in total

war shatters the barriers of international law just as ruthlessly as

the terrorist violence of single-party dictatorships neutralizes

constitutional protections internally. These first two readings

divide up light and shadow between the forces of totalitarianism

and their liberal enemies clearly enough; for the

third, post-fascist reading, the century stands overshadowed

by an ideological crusade of parties whose mentalities are essentially

similar, even if they are not of the same rank. Both sides

appear to fight out the global contradictions between programs

justified by differing philosophies of history; programs that owe

their power to kindle fanaticism to essentially religious energies

perverted to serve secular ends.


Notwithstanding all their differences, these three interpretations

have one thing in common: they all oblige us to look at the

gruesome features of a century that “invented” the gas chambers,

total war, state-sponsored genocide and extermination

camps, brainwashing, state security apparatuses, and the

panoptic surveillance of entire populations. The twentieth

century “generated” more victims, more dead soldiers, more

murdered civilians, more displaced minorities, more torture,

more dead from cold, from hunger, from maltreatment, more

political prisoners and refugees, than could ever have been

imagined. The phenomena of violence and barbarism mark

the distinctive signature of the age. From Horkheimer and

Adorno to Baudrillard, from Heidegger to Foucault and Derrida,

the totalitarian features of the age have also embedded

themselves into the very structure of its critical diagnoses. And

this raises the question of whether these negativistic interpretations,

by remaining transfixed by the gruesomeness of

the century, might be missing the reverse side of all these



Of course, it took decades for those who were directly

involved and affected to come to a conscious assessment of

the dimensions of the horror that finally culminated in the

Holocaust, in the methodical annihilation of the Jews of Europe.

But even if it was suppressed at first, this shock eventually

set loose energies, even opened new insights, that brought

about a reversal in the perception of this horror during the

second half of the century. For the nations that dragged the

planet into a technologically unlimited war in 1914, and for

the people who were forced to confront the mass crimes of an

ideologically unlimited war of extermination after 1939, the

year 1945 also marks a turning point — a turn toward something

better, toward the mastering of the forceof barbarism that had

broken through the very foundations of civilization in Germany.

Should we not have learned something from the catastrophes

of the first half of the twentieth century?


My doubts regarding all three of these readings can be

expressed in this way: the demarcation of a short twentieth

century forces periods of global war and the Cold War period

together into a single unit, suggesting the appearance of a

homogenous, uninterrupted, 75-year war of systems, regimes,

and ideologies. But this has the effect of occluding the very

event that not only divides this century chronologically, but

also constitutes an economic, political, and above all a normative

watershed: the defeat of fascism. In the context of the Cold

War, the ideological significance of the wartime alliance

between the Western powers and the Soviet Union against

the German Reich was dismissed as “unnatural” and promptly

forgotten. But the Allied victory and the German defeat of

1945 permanently discredited an array of myths which, ever

since the end of the nineteenth century, had been mobilized

against the heritage of 1789. Allied victory not only sparked the

democratic developments in the Federal Republic of Germany,

Japan, and Italy, and eventually Portugal and Spain. It undermined

the foundations of all forms of political legitimation that

did not — at least verbally, at least in words — subscribe to the

universalist spirit of political enlightenment. This is of course

little consolation for victims of ongoing violations of human



The year 1945 saw a change in the cultural and intellectual

climate that formed a necessary condition for all three of the

uncontested cultural innovations of this century. The revolutionary

changes in the fine arts, architecture, and music that had

begun in the decades before, during, and after the First World

War, and which drew from the experience of war itself,

attained worldwide recognition only after 1945, in the past

tense, as it were, of “classical modernism.” Until the early

1930s, avante-garde art produced a repertoire of entirely new

aesthetic forms and techniques, opening a horizon of possibilities

that was exploited but never transcended by the experiments

of international art during the second half of the century.

Only two philosophers, Heidegger and Wittgenstein — both

opposed to the spirit of modernism, to be sure — possessed a

comparable originality and exerted a comparable historical



This changed cultural climate after 1945 also formed the

background for the political developments which, according

to Eric Hobsbawm,1 changed the face of the postwar period

until the 1980s: the Cold War (a), decolonialization (b), and

the construction of the social welfare state (c).


(a) The continuing spiral of an arrogant, exhausting arms

race certainly succeeded in keeping directly threatened nations

in a state of continual fear. Nevertheless the mad calculations of

a balance of terror — MAD was the self-ironic abbreviation for

mutually assured destruction — did prevent the outbreak of a

hot war. The unexpected, mutual concession of two superpowers

gone wild — the eminently reasonable agreement that

Reagan and Gorbachev reached in Reykjavik that introduced

the end of the arms race — makes the Cold War appear in

hindsight as a high-risk process of the self-domestication of

nuclear alliances. This is also an apt description for the peaceful

implosion of a global empire, whose leadership recognized the

inefficiency of a supposedly superior mode of production, and

admitted defeat in the economic race rather than following the

time-honored pattern of deflecting internal conflicts with military

adventures abroad.


(b) The process of decolonialization did not follow a straight

path either. In hindsight, however, the colonial powers only

fought rearguard actions. The French fought in vain against

national liberation movements in Indochina; in 1956 Britain

and France saw their military adventure in Suez end in failure.

In 1975 the United States was forced to end its intervention in

Vietnam after ten costly years of war. The year 1945 marked

the end of Japan’s colonial empire and the independence of

Syria and Libya. Britain withdrew from India in 1947; Burma,

Sri Lanka, Israel, and Indonesia were all founded in the following

year. The western regions of the Islamic world from Iran to

Morocco next gained independence, followed gradually by the

states of Central Africa and finally the last remaining colonies in

Southeast Asia and the Caribbean. The end of the apartheid

regime in South Africa, and the return of Hong Kong and

Macao to China, conclude a process that has at least formally

ended the dependencies of colonial peoples and established new

states (all too often torn by civil war, cultural conflicts, and

ethnic strife) as equal members in the UN General Assembly.


(c) The third development is an unambiguous change for the

better. In the affluent and peaceful Western European democracies,

and to a lesser degree in the United States, Japan, and

some other countries, mixed economies made possible the

establishment and effective realization of basic social rights.

Of course, the explosive growth of the global economy, the

quadrupling of industrial production, and an exponential

increase in world trade between the early 1950s and the early

1970s also generated disparities between the rich and the poor

regions of the world. But the governments of the OECD

nations, who were responsible for three-quarters of global production

and four-fifths of global trade in industrial goods during

these two decades, had learned enough from the catastrophic

experiences of the period between the two world wars to

pursue intelligent domestic economic policies, focussing on

stability with a relatively high rate of economic growth, and

on the construction and enhancement of comprehensive social

security systems. In welfare-state mass democracies, highly

productive capitalist economies were socially domesticated for

the first time, and were thus brought more or less in line with

the normative self-understanding of democratic constitutional



These three developments lead a Marxist historian such as

Eric Hobsbawm to celebrate the postwar era as a “golden age.”

But since 1989 at the latest, there has been a growing public

realization that this era is reaching its end. In countries where

the social welfare state is still acknowledged as a positive

achievement even in hindsight, there is a growing mood of

resignation. The end of the twentieth century was marked by

a structural threat to the welfarist domestication of capitalism,

and by the revival of a socially reckless form of neoliberalism.

Commenting on the current mood — somewhat depressed,

somewhat clueless, the whole thing washed over by the throb

of techno-pop — Hobsbawm could almost be taken for an

author from late Roman antiquity: “The Short Twentieth

Century ended in problems, for which nobody had, oreven

claimed to have, solutions. As the citizens of the fin-de-siècle

tapped their way through the global fog that surrounded them,

into the third millenium, all they knew for certain was that an

era of history had ended. They knew very little else.”2


Even the old problems — peacekeeping and international

security, economic disparities between North and South, the

risks of ecological catastrophe — were already global ones. But

today these problems have all been sharpened by a newly

emerging problem that supersedes the old challenges. Capitalism’s

new, apparently irrevocable globalizing dynamic drastically

reduces the G7 states’ freedom of action, which had

enabled them, unlike the economically dependent states of

the Third World, to hang on to a relative degree of independence.

Economic globalization forms the central challenge for

the political and social orders that grew out of postwar Europe

(III). One way to meet this challenge would consist in strengthening

the regulatory power of politics, to allow politics to catch

up with global markets that are beyond the reach of nation-states

(IV). Or does the lack of any clear orientation for ways of

meeting this challenge indicate not that we can learn from

catastrophes, but indeed that we only learn from catastrophes?

jürgen habermas explains the twentieth century—parts III and IV



Jürgen Habermas

Learning from Catastrophe?

A Look Back at the Short Twentieth Century

At the End of the Welfare-State Compromise

Ironically, developed societies in the twenty-first century

are faced with the reappearance of a problem that they seemd to

have only recently solved under the pressure of systemic competition.

The problem is as old as capitalism itself: how to make

the most effective use of the allocative and innovative functions

of self-regulating markets, while simultaneously avoiding

unequal patterns of distribution and other social costs that are

incompatible with the conditions for social integration in

liberal democratic states. In the mixed economies of the

West, states had a considerable portion of the domestic product

at their disposal, and could therefore use transfer payments,

subsidies, and effective policies in the areas of infrastructure,

employment, and social security. They were able to exert a

definite influence on the overall conditions of production and

distribution with the goal of maintaining growth, stable prices,

and full employment. In other words, by applying growth-

stimulating measures on the one side, and social policies on

the other, the regulatory state could simultaneously stimulate

the economy and guarantee social integration.


Notwithstanding the considerable differences between them,

the social-political spheres in countries like the United States,

Japan, and the Federal Republic of Germany saw continued

expansion until the 1980s. Since then, this trend has been

reversed in all OECD countries: benefits have been reduced,

while at the same time access to social security has been

tightened and the pressure on the unemployed has increased.

The transformation and reduction of the social welfare state

is the direct consequence of supply-side economic policies —

anti-inflationary monetary and fiscal policies, the reduction of

direct taxation, the transfer of state-owned enterprises into the

private sector, and so on — aimed at deregulating markets,

reducing subsidies, and creating a more favorable investment



Of course, the consequence of the revocation of the welfare-state

compromise is that the crisis tendencies it had previously

counteracted now break out into open view. Emerging social

costs threaten to over burden the integration capacities of liberal

societies. The indicators of a rise in poverty and income disparities

are unmistakable, as are the tendencies toward social disintegration.3

The gap between the standard of living of the employed, the

underemployed, and the unemployed is widening.

“Underclasses” arise wherever exclusions — from the

employment system, from higher education, from the benefits

of transfer payments, from housing markets, from family

resources, and so on — are compounded. Impoverished social

groups, largely cordoned off from the broader society, can no

longer improve their social position through their own efforts.4

In the long run, a loss of solidarity such as this will inevitably

destroy a liberal political culture whose universalistic self-understanding

democratic societies depend on. Procedurally

correct majority decisions that merely reflect the fears and self-

defensive reactions of social classes threatened with downward

mobility — decisions that reflect the sentiments of right-wing

populism, in other words — will end up eroding the legitimacy of

democratic procedures and institutions themselves.


Neoliberals, who are prepared to accept a higher level of

social inequities, who even believe in the inherent fairness of

“position valuations” via globalized financial markets, will naturally

differ in their appraisal of this situation from those who

recognize that equal social rights are the mainstays of democratic

citizenship, and who thus still adhere to the “social-democratic

age.” But both sides describe the dilemma similarly.

The gist of their diagnoses is that national governments have

been forced into a zero-sum game where necessary economic

objectives can be reached only at the expense of social and

political objectives. In the context of a global economy,

nation-states can only increase the international competitiveness

of their “position” by imposing self-restrictions on the

formative powers of the state itself. And this justifies the sort

of “dismantling” policies that end up damaging social cohesion

and social stability as such.5 I cannot go into a full description of

this dilemma here.6 But it boils down to two theses: First, the

economic problems besetting affluent societies can be explained

by a structural transformation of the world economic system, a

transformation characterized by the term “globalization.” Second,

this transformation so radically reduces nation-states’ capacity

for action that the options remaining open to them are not

sufficient to shield their populations from the undesired social

and political consequences of a transnational economy.7


The nation-state has fewer and fewer options open to it. Two

of these options are now completely ruled out: protectionism,

and the return to a demand-oriented economic policy. Insofar

as the movement of capital can be controlled at all, the costs of

a protectionist closure of domestic economies would quickly

become intolerably high under the conditions of a global economy.

And the failure of state employment programs today is

not just due to limits on national domestic budgets; these

programs are also simply no longer effective within the national

framework. In a globalized economy, “Keynsianism in one’s

own country” just won’t work any more. Policies that promote

a proactive, intelligent, and sustainable adaptation of national

conditions to global competition are much more promising.

Such policies include familiar measures for a long-range industrial

policy, support for research and development, improving

the competitiveness of the workforce through retraining and

continuing education, and a reasonable degree of “flexibility”

for the labor market. For the middle term, measures such as

these would produce locational advantages but would not fundamentally

alter the pattern of international competition as

such. No matter how one looks at it, the globalization of the

economy destroys a historical constellation that made the welfare

state compromise temporarily possible. Even if this compromise

was never the ideal solution for a problem inherent

within capitalism itself, it nevertheless held capitalism’s social

costs within tolerable limits.


Until the seventeenth century, emerging European states

were defined by their sovereign rule over a specific territory;

their enhanced steering capacities made these states superior to

earlier political forms such as the ancient empires or city-states.

As a functionally specialized administrative state, the modern

state differentiated itself from the legally institutionalized private

sphere of a market economy; at the same time, as a tax-based

state, it grew dependent on a capitalist economy. Over

the course of the nineteenth century, now in the form of the

nation-state, the modern state began for the first time to open

itself to democratic forms of legitimation. In some privileged

regions of the world, and under the favorable conditions of the

postwar period, the nation-state — which had in the meantime

established the worldwide model for political organization —

succeeded in transforming itself into a social welfare state by

regulating the national economy without interfering with

its self-correcting mechanisms. But this successful combination

is menaced by a global economy that now increasingly escapes

the control of a regulatory state. Obviously, welfare-state functions

can be maintained at their previous level only if they

are transferred from the nation-state to larger political

entities which could manage to keep pace with a transnational



IV. Beyond the Nation-State?


For this reason, the focus is on the construction of supranational

institutions. Continent-wide economic alliances such as

NAFTA or APEC let national governments enter into binding

agreements, or at least agreements that are backed by mild

sanctions. The benefits of cooperation are greater for more

ambitious projects such as the European Union. Continent-wide

regimes of this sort can establish unified currency zones

that help reduce the risk of fluctuating exchange rates, but,

more significantly, they can also create larger political entities

with a hierarchical organization of competencies. In the future,

we will have to decide whether we want to rely on the status

quo ofa Europe that remains integrated only through markets,

or whether we want to a set a course for a European democracy.8


Of course, even a geographically and economically expanded

regime of this sort would at best still generate internal advantages

for global competition, and would thus enhance its position

against other regimes. The creation of larger political

entities leads to defensive alliances against the rest of the

world, but it changes nothing in the mode of locational competition

as such. It does not, per se, bring about a change of
course that would replace various adaptations to the transnational

economic system with an attempt to influence the overall

context of the economic system itself. On the other hand,

expanded political alliances are a necessary condition if politics

are to catch up with the forces of a globalized economy. With

the emergence of each new supranational entity, the overall

number of political actors grows smaller, but the club of those

very few actors capable of global action, or capable of cooperation,

gains a new member. Given the required political will,

such actors will be in the position to enter into binding agreements

that will set up a basic framework for a globalized



Given all the difficulties of creating a European Union, an

agreement for the creation of a worldwide order — especially

one that would not simply exhaust itself in creating and legally

institutionalizing markets, but would introduce elements of a

global political will-formation, and would work toward addressing

the undesired social consequences of global commerce —

would be much more difficult. As nation-states are increasingly

overwhelmed by the global economy, one clear alternative

emerges, even if somewhat abstractly and viewed, so to speak,

from the academic ivory tower: transferring functions that

social welfare states had previously exercised at the national

level onto supranational authorities. At this supranational level,

however, there is no mode of political coordination that would

both guide market-driven transnational commerce and maintain

social standards. Of course, the world’s 191 sovereign

states are bound together in a thick network of institutions

subsisting belowthe level of the United Nations.9 Approximately

350 intergovernmental organizations, half of which

were created after 1960, serve a variety of economic, social,

and peacekeeping functions. But these organizations are naturally

in no position to exercise any positive political coordination,

or to fulfill any regulatory functions in areas of social,

economic, or labor policy that are relevant for questions of



Nobody wants to spin out utopian fantasies; certainly not

these days when all utopian energies seem to be exhausted.10

Without some significant effort on the part of the social

sciences, the idea of supranational politics “catching up” with

markets cannot even attain the status of a “project.” Such a

project would, at the very least, need to be guided by examples

where differing interest positions are equalized in a way that all

involved could find reasonable, and it would need to sketch the

outlines for a range of unified procedures and practices. Social

science’s resistance to the project of a transnational regime

along the lines of a world domestic policy is understandableif

we assume that such a project could only be justified by the

given interest positions of existing states and their populations,

and put in place by independent political powers. In a stratified

world society, unredeemable conflicts of interest seem to result

from the asymmetrical interdependencies between developed

nations, newly industrialized nations, and the less developed

nations. But this perception is only correct as long as there are

no institutionalized procedures of transnational will-formation

that could induce globally competent actors to broaden their

individual preferences into a “global governance.”11


Globalization processes are not just economic. Bit by bit,

they introduce us to another perspective, from which we see

the growing interdependence of social arenas, communities of

risks, and the networks of shared fate ever more clearly. The

acceleration and the intensification of communication and commerce

shrink spatial and temporal distances; expanding markets

run up against the limits of the planet; the exploitation of

resources meets the limits of nature. These narrowed horizons

rule out the option of externalizing the consequences of many

of our actions: it is increasingly rare that costs and risks can be

shifted onto others — whether other sectors of society, other

geographical regions, other cultures, or future generations —

without sanctions of one kind or another. This fact is as obvious

for the risks of large-scale technologies, which can no longer be

localized, as it is for affluent societies’ production of toxic

wastes, which now endanger every part of the earth.12 But

how much longer will we be able to shift social costs onto the

“superfluous” segment of the working population?


International agreements and regulations aimed at counteracting

such externalizations of costs can certainly not be

expected from governments as long as they are perceived as

independent actors controlling their own national arenas, where

governments must always secure the support of (and reelection

by) their populations. The incorporation of each

individual state into the binding cooperative procedures of a

cosmopolitan community of states would have to be perceived

as a part of states’ own domestic policies. Thus the decisive

question is whether the civil society and the political public

sphere of increasingly large regimes can foster the consciousness

of an obligatory cosmopolitan solidarity. Only the transformed

consciousness of citizens, as it imposes itself in areas of domestic

policy, can pressure global actors to change their own self-understanding

sufficiently to begin to see themselves as members

of an international community who are compelled to

cooperate with one another, and hence to take one another’s

interests into account. And this change in perspective from

“international relations” to a world domestic policy cannot be

expected from ruling elites until the population itself, on the

basis of its own understanding of its own best interests, rewards

them for it.13


An encouraging example of this is the pacifist consciousness

that had clearly developed in the wake of two barbaric world

wars in the nations that were directly involved, and which

subsequently spread to many other countries. We know that

this change of consciousness did not prevent further regional

wars, or countless civil wars in other parts of the world. But it

did bring about a change in the political and cultural parameters

of interstate relations large enough for the UN Declaration of

Human Rights, with its prohibition against wars of aggression

and crimes against humanity, to gain the weak normative binding

force of a publicly recognized convention. This is not

enough, of course, for the institutionalization of the economic

procedures, practices, and regulations that could solve the problems

of economic globalization. An effective regulation of world society
demands policies that successfully redistribute

burdens. And that will be possible only on the basis of a cosmopolitan

solidarity that is still lacking; a solidarity that would

certainly be weaker and less binding than the civil solidarity that

developed within nation-states. The human population has

long since coalesced into an unwilling community of shared

risk. Under this pressure, it is thus quite plausible that the

great, historically momentous dynamic of abstraction from

local, to dynastic, to national to democratic consciousness

would take one more step forward.


The institutionalization of procedures for global coordination

and generalization of interests, and for the imaginative construction

of common interests, will not work in the organizational

form of a world state; a form that is itself not even

desirable. The autonomy, particularity, and uniqueness of formerly

sovereign states will have to be taken into account. But

what sort of path will take us there? The Hobbesian problem —

how to create a stable social order — overtaxes the cooperative

capacities of rational egoists, even on the global level. Institutional

innovations come out of societies whose political elites

find a resonance and support for them in the already transformed

basic value orientations of their populations. Thus the

first addressees for this “project” are not governments. They are

social movements and non-governmental organizations; the

active members of a civil society that stretches beyond national

borders. The idea that the regulatory power of politics has to

grow to catch up with globalized markets, in any event, refers

to the complex relationships between the coordinative capacities

of political regimes, on the one hand, and on the other a

new mode of integration: cosmopolitan solidarity.

jürgen habermas explains the twentieth century—footnotes



Jürgen Habermas

Learning from Catastrophe?
A Look Back at the Short Twentieth Century



1 Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes: A History of the World

1914-1991, New York 1994. I owe more to this stimulating

book than the notes express.


2 Ibid. 558-9.


3 W. Heitmeyer (ed.), Was treibt die Gesellschaft auseinander?,

Frankfurt/M. 1997.


4 N. Luhmann, “Jenseits von Barbarei,” in M. Miller and H.G.

Soeffner (eds.), Modernität und Barbarei, FrankfudM. 1996,



5 R. Dahrendorf describes this in “Squaring the Circle,” Transit 12

(1996), 5-28.


6 My thanks for permission to look at the following manuscripts:

C. Offe, “Precariousness and the Labor Market. A Medium

Term Review of Available Policy Responses” (MS 1997); J.

Neyer and M. Seeleib-Kaiser, “Bringing Economy Back,” in Economic

Globalization and the Re-commodification of the Workforce,

Zentrum für Sozialpolitik, University of Bremen, worlung paper

16/1995; H. Wiesenthal, “Globalisierung. Soziologische und

politikwissenschaftliche Koordinaten eines unbekannten Territoriums”

(MS 1995).


7 The following receives a fuller treatment in J. Habermas, “Jenseits

des Nationalstaates? Zu einigen Folgeproblemen der

wirtschaftlichen Globalisierung,” in U. Beck (ed.), Politik der

Globalisierung, Frankfurt/M. 1998, 67-84.


8 See pp. 89-100.


9 D. Senghaas, “Interdependenzen im internationalen System,” in

G. Krell and H. Müller (eds), Frieden und Konflikt in den internationalen

Beziehungen, Frankfurt/M. 1994, 190-222.


10 I do not believe that the unpredictable implosion of the Soviet

Union has discredited my diagnosis from 1985: J. Habermas,

“The New Obscurity and the Exhaustion of Utopian Energies,”

in Shierry Weber Nicholson (ed. and tr. ), The New Conservatism:

Cultural Criticism and the Historians’ Debate, Cambridge, MA,



11 D. Held, Demomacy and the Global Order, Cambridge 1995.


12 U. Beck, Gegengifte. Die organisierte Unverantwortlichkeit, Frankfurt/

M. 1988.


13 On the model of a global domestic policy without global governance,

cf. pp. 100-12.


— Jürgen Habermas, "Learning From Catastrophe? A Look Back at the Short Twentieth Century," Chapter Three in The Postnational Constellation: Political Essays. Translated, edited, and with an introduction by Max Pensky. First MIT Press edition, 2001. (Studies in contemporary German social thought). This translation 2001 Polity Press. First published in Germany as Die postnationale Konstellation: Politische Essays, 1988 Suhrkamp Verlag.