Adventures Adventures of the Symbolic: Post-Marxism and Radical Democracy (Columbia Studies in Political Thought / Political History)
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Marxism's collapse in the twentieth century profoundly altered the style and substance of Western European radical thought. To build a more robust form of democratic theory and action, prominent theorists moved to reject revolution, abandon class for more fragmented models of social action, and elevate the political over the social. Acknowledging the constructedness of society and politics, they chose the "symbolic" as a concept powerful enough to reinvent leftist thought outside a Marxist framework. Following Maurice Merleau-Ponty's Adventures of the Dialectic, which reassessed philosophical Marxism at mid century, Warren Breckman critically revisits these thrilling experiments in the aftermath of Marxism.
The post-Marxist idea of the symbolic is dynamic and complex, uncannily echoing the early German Romantics, who first advanced a modern conception of symbolism and the symbolic. Hegel and Marx denounced the Romantics for their otherworldly and nebulous posture, yet post-Marxist thinkers appreciated the rich potential of the ambiguities and paradoxes the Romantics first recognized. Mapping different ideas of the symbolic among contemporary thinkers, Breckman traces a fascinating reflection of Romantic themes and resonances, and he explores in depth the effort to reconcile a radical and democratic political agenda with a politics that does not privilege materialist understandings of the social. Engaging with the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss, Cornelius Castoriadis, Claude Lefort, Marcel Gauchet, Ernesto Laclau, Chantal Mouffe, and Slavoj Žižek, Breckman uniquely situates these important theorists within two hundred years of European thought and extends their profound relevance to today's political activism.
reconciliation is a powerful motif in Castoriadis, who turned sharply against the determinism that he believed was intrinsic to dialectical form. So there are grounds for seeing the post-Marxist symbolic turn as a move against dialectical thought. Conversely, the question of the dialectic does not disappear. Žižek, for example, rejects the “postmodern doxa” concerning the “illusion of the Hegelian Aufhebung (‘sublation’: negationconservation-elevation).” In Žižek’s unconventional reading, Hegel
Schelling’s emphasis on presence and participation accentuated a change in German aesthetic discourse already observable in predecessors like Karl Phillip Moritz and Goethe. Moritz articulated a notion of the beautiful object as the in sich vollendet, that which is perfect in itself. “An authentic work of art,” wrote Moritz, “a beautiful poem, is something ﬁnished and completed in itself, something that exists for itself, and whose value lies in itself, and in the ordered relationship of its
us 86 T H E F AT E O F T H E S Y M B O L I C both the movement by which lives become truths, and the circularity of that singular being who in a certain sense already is everything he happens to think.” In short, structuralism gave Merleau-Ponty a further tool for decentering human subjectivity, for conceptualizing it as eccentrically situated within society and nature. But he likely underestimated the extremism of the structuralist break with subjectivity, seeing it as a critique rather
and guide future work, so too the institution “sets on course an activity, a succession, initiation into a present which is productive after it.” Reinforcing the signiﬁcance of this for the question of the human subject, Merleau-Ponty emphasized that there is no “break” (coupure) between private and public institution, and he refused to assign a causal direction when speaking of the private and the public. The overlaps with Castoriadis are patent, and it is hard to believe Castoriadis’s claim
fact that French intellectuals experienced the fall of Marxism in a particularly intense way would not be enough to justify my decision to concentrate so heavily on this French and French-inﬂected discourse. After all, the intellectual crisis of Marxism has international dimensions, which could embrace an enormous cast of characters ranging from Jürgen Habermas to Barry Hindess, Paul Hirst, and Judith Butler, to name just a few; moreover, a narrative of the crisis could encompass much of the