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Imaginaries of Modernity:

Politics, Cultures, Tensions

John Rundell’s Imaginaries of Modernity provides a refreshingly original, carefully

crafted theoretically and philosophically informed critical discussion of the multi-
dimensional character of modernity. It will re-invigorate the reader’s interest in mod-
ernity and provide a secure foundation on which to develop a richer and more relevant
understanding of the complex character of modern forms of life.
Barry Smart, University of Portsmouth, UK

This book offers a new perspective on the issue of modernity through a series of
interconnected essays. Drawing centrally on the works of Castoriadis, Luhmann,
Heller and Lefort, and in critical discussion with Weber, Durkheim, Simmel, Adorno,
Habermas and Taylor, the author argues that modernity is not only a unique historical
creation but also a multiple one.
With a focus on five broad themes – the problem of understanding of modernity after
the decline of grand narratives; the complexity of the modern condition; politics, espe-
cially with reference to freedom and totalitarian regimes; the variety and density of
modern life; and the centrality of a concept of culture to social and critical theory – John
Rundell advances the view that modernity is not the outcome of an evolutionary process
or historical development, but is unique and indeterminate, as are the constitutive
dimensions that can be identified as ‘modern’. There are, then, different modernities.
A rigorous engagement with a range of prominent and contemporary social theor-
ists, Imaginaries of Modernity casts new light on the significance of understanding the
multidimensional character of modernity and the plurality of its forms beyond the
conventional paradigms associated with only the West. As such, it will appeal to
scholars of social theory, critical theory, sociology and philosophy concerned with
questions of culture, politics and modernity.

John Rundell is Principal Honorary and Associate Professor and Reader in Social
Theory at The University of Melbourne, Australia. He is the author of The Origins of
Modern Social Theory from Kant to Hegel to Marx, the editor of Aesthetics and
Modernity: Essays by Agnes Heller, and the co-editor of Between Totalitarianism and
Postmodernity; Rethinking Imagination: Culture and Creativity; Culture and Civiliza-
tion: Classical and Critical Readings; Blurred Boundaries: Migration, Ethnicity, Citi-
zenship; Critical Theory After Habermas: Encounters and Departures; Contemporary
Perspectives in Social and Critical Philosophy; and Recognition, Work, Politics: New
Directions in French Critical Theory.
Routledge Studies in Social and Political Thought

For a full list of titles in this series, please visit www.routledge.com/series/RSSPT

109 Deconstructing Happiness 115 Crisis and Critique

Critical Sociology and the On the Fragile Foundations of
Good Life Social Life
Jordan McKenzie Rodrigo Cordero

110 Novels and the Sociology of the 116 China in Early Enlightenment
Contemporary Political Thought
Arpad Szakolczai Simon Kow

111 Liberty, Toleration and 117 Elementary Forms of Social

Equality Relations
John Locke, Jonas Proast Status, Power and Reference Groups
and the Letters Concerning Theodore D. Kemper
John William Tate 118 Groundwork for the Practice of
the Good Life
112 Jürgen Habermas and the Politics and Ethics at the
European Economic Crisis Intersection of North Atlantic and
Cosmopolitanism Reconsidered African Philosophy
Edited by Gaspare M. Genna, Omedi Ochieng
Thomas O. Haakenson, and
Ian W. Wilson 119 Theories of the Stranger
Debates on Cosmopolitanism,
113 Genealogies of Emotions, Identity and Cross-Cultural
Intimacies, and Desire Encounters
Theories of Changes in Emotional Vince Marotta
Regimes from Medieval Society to
Late Modernity 120 Deciphering Goffman
Ann Brooks The structure of his sociological
theory revisited
114 Modernity and Crisis Ramón Vargas Maseda
in the Thought of Michel
Foucault 121 Planet Utopia
The Totality of Reason Utopia, Dystopia, and Globalisation
Matan Oram Mark Featherstone
Imaginaries of Modernity:
Politics, Cultures, Tensions

John Rundell





First published 2017
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Acknowledgement vii
Details of Published Work viii

Introduction: Modernity is out of joint 1

Tensions of modernity 21
1 From communicative modernity to modernities in tension 23
2 Modernity, contingency, dissonance: Luhmann contra Adorno,
Adorno contra Luhmann 39
3 Imagining cities, others: Strangers, contingency and fear 48

Political modernities 61
4 Durkheim and the reflexive condition of modernity 63
5 Democratic revolutions, power and ‘The City’: Weber and
political modernity 83
6 Autonomy, oligarchy, statesman: Weber, Castoriadis and the
fragility of politics 98
7 Power, the state and the closure of politics – On the recent work
of Claude Lefort 120
8 Tensions of citizenship in an age of diversity: Reflections on
territoriality, democracy and symmetrical reciprocity 126
9 From indigenous civilisation to indigenous modernities 144
vi Contents
10 Intersections and tensions between civilisations and modernities:
The case of Oman 158
11 Citizens and strangers: Cosmopolitanism as an empty universal 177

In search of transcendence 189
12 Multiple modernities, sacredness, and the democratic imaginary:
Religion as a stand-in category 191
13 In search of transcendence: Charles Taylor’s critique of
secularisation 210
14 The erotic imaginary, autonomy and modernity 231
15 Musicality and modernity: Music as a space of possibilities 243

Bibliography 274
Index 296

There are many people who I would like to thank in the context of the life of
this book. I would like to thank Agnes Heller, Joel Kahn, Maila Stivens,
David Roberts, Peter Beilharz, John Friedman and Peter Murphy for the
discussions and seminars in which many of the chapters in the book were first
presented. I would also like to thank the late Peter Losonczi of the Interna-
tional Research Network in Religion and Democracy for the invitation that
inspired Chapter 12, and Tom Bailey for commentary and critical feedback
on Chapters 1 and 11. I also thank Sergio Mariscal and James Field for their
own critical discussions and insights. I would also like to thank the under-
graduate and graduate students who attended my courses on modernity, critical
theories, and the critical imagination at The University of Melbourne. These
courses provided reflexive spaces where ideas could be presented, mulled over
and debated and some of the results of these discussions are present in these
Thanks also goes to Neil Jordan of Taylor and Francis who supported this
book project from the beginning and to Taylor and Francis’ production staff
for bringing it to final form.
Two other people are of note who should also be mentioned – Jacqui Adler
and Jane Refshauge for invaluable assistance along the way.
In particular though I would to thank Danielle Petherbridge for her own
insights concerning many of these chapters, her wisdom, undying support and
love. This book is dedicated to her.
Details of Published Work

Rundell, John, ‘Tensions of Citizenship in an Age of Diversity: Reflections on

Territoriality, Cosmopolitanism and Symmetrical Reciprocity’, Blurred
Boundaries: Migration, Ethnicity, Citizenship, Aldershot: Avebury, 1998, 321–340
Rundell, John, ‘Modernity, Contingency and Dissonance’, in Moderne
Begreifen. Zur Paradoxie eines Socio-Ästhetischen Deutungsmusters (‘Compre-
hending Modernity. On the Paradoxicality of a Socio-Aesthetic Paradigm’),
edited by Christine Magerski, Christiane Weller, and Robert Savage, Wiesbaden:
DUV, 2007, 443–451
Rundell, John, ‘Durkheim and the Reflexive Condition of Modernity’, in
Recognition, Work, Politics: Themes and Dialogues in French Critical Theory,
edited by Deranty, J-P., Leiden: Brill, 2007, 203–230
Rundell, John, ‘The Erotic Imaginary, Autonomy and Modernity’, in
Modern Privacy, edited by Harry Blatterer, Pauline Johnson, and Maria
Markus, London: Palgrave MacMillan, 102–116
Rundell, John, ‘Multiple Modernities, Sacredness and the Democratic
Imaginary: Religion as a Stand-in Category’, in Discoursing the Postsecular:
Essays on Habermas’ Postsecular Turn, edited by Peter Losonczi and Aakash
Singh, Berlin/London: LIT-Verlag, 2010: 19–39
Rundell, John, ‘From Communicative Modernity to Modernities in Ten-
sion’, in Global Perspectives on Habermas, edited by Tom Bailey, London:
Routledge, 2013, 156–182
Rundell, John, ‘In Search of Transcendence – Charles Taylor’s Critique of
Secularisation’, in Secularisation and its Discontents. Perspectives on the
Return of Religion in the Contemporary West, edited by Matthew Sharpe and
Dylan Nickelson, New York: Springer, 2014: 199–216
Rundell, John, ‘Autonomy, Oligarchy Statesman: Weber, Castoriadis and
the Fragility of Politics’, in The Project of Democracy and the Legacy of
Cornelius Castoriadis, edited by Vrasidis Karalis, Leiden: Brill Academic
Books, 2014: 235–261
Rundell, John, ‘Review Essay of Claude Lefort, Complications: Communism
and the Dilemmas of Democracy’, in Critical Horizons, 2007, 8.2: 256–271
Rundell, John, ‘Democratic Revolutions, Power and The City: Weber and
Political Modernity’, Thesis Eleven, 2009, 97: 80–97
Details of Published Work ix
Rundell, John, ‘Imagining Cities, Others: strangers, contingency and fear’,
Thesis Eleven, 2014, 121: 9–22
Rundell, John, ‘Intersections and Tensions between Civilisations and
Modernities: The Case of Oman’, Arena Journal, 2015, 43: 1–25
Rundell, John, ‘Modernisation’ in The Encyclopedia of Social Science
(Third Edition), edited by Adam Kuper and Jessica Kuper, London: Routledge,
2004: 658–660
Rundell, John, ‘Citizens and Strangers: Cosmopolitanism as an Empty
Universal’ Critical Horizons, 2016, 17.1
Rundell, John, ‘From Indigenous Civilization to Indigenous Modernities:
Sacred Narratives, terra nullius and an Australian Bestiarium’, in Rethinking
Civilizational Analysis, edited by Said Arjomand and Edward Tiryakian,
London: Sage Publishers, 2004: 201–216
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Introduction: Modernity is out of joint

The critique of meta-narratives and their putative demise has entailed the
explicit critique of teleological versions of history that attempted to look for
developmental laws in the formation of modern societies, and in so doing
reconstruct and theorise their evolution and growth. One version of the tele-
ological model viewed this developmental history as progressive in that it
moved from un-freedom to freedom, as with Hegel’s positing of the voyage of
reason. Alternatively, this teleological narrative has also been constructed
negatively. World history is depicted as moving from progress to decline,
either in terms of nihilistic decadence, or in terms of a rationalistically driven
In each of these scenarios utopias are modernity’s other – existing elsewhere
in a nether world that was either past or in the future. In the positive version
we invariably built on lessons that were there to be learnt and which were
accumulated over millennia by trial and error, or there was a ‘hidden hand’,
an evolutionary, developmental impulse that determined the positive course.
A better world simply awaited us. In the negative version – and in the bleaker
ones there was nothing positive, only misanthropy – the utopias turned either
into dystopias, or are superseded, branded as old fashioned and permanently
in the supermarket ‘sale’ bin of consumerable ideas. This means that we are
left with only a memory of their vitality and fecundity. Utopias are either for
the first flush of a supine youth located in antiquity, or a self-deluder who has
been administered an elixir in the twilight of life to enable a state of final
flourishing. Hence we are left to mourn, memorialise and remember as if they
are dead. We, the mere mortals, are once again in the age of ossified monu-
mental history – the history of monuments where a utopia stood like a giant
among the dwarves. We stand only as dwarves and not on the giant’s
shoulders, but at their feet staring blankly into dusk, as the owl of Minerva
lies dead before us. It took to the sky and promptly plummeted earthward.
Or so the story goes.
Modernity was always out of joint and this has given rise to both negative
and positive possibilities rather than utopias. A modernity without a pre-
determined course or exit strategy does not entail that its routes are straight
well-lit boulevards and malls – the avenues of positive or negative
2 Introduction: Modernity is out of joint
predictability. There have always been the alleyways and back streets among
its cities; detention camps, gulags and bestiarium in its nations and empires.
And there have always been alternative routes to unknown destinations –
modernities with different and even positive imaginaries and value horizons,
even if they might be fragile. In other words, there are different modernities,
and not all of them straightforward progressions into freedom or decline.
To be sure, these images of different modernities have a long theoretical
trajectory arguably beginning with the work of Max Weber.1 Notwithstanding
Weber’s rationalisation thesis, a substantial and even countercurrent in his
work concentrates on the analysis of both modern and non-modern societies
from historical and comparative perspectives, as will be explored in Chapters
5 and 6. Weber’s thesis concerning the rationalisation of purposive rationality
is thrown into relief within his work by a counter-trend concerning value
rationality. For Weber, this latter form of rationality challenges the propensity
for the systematic success at both cultural and institutional levels of purposive
or instrumental rationalisation with very mixed results.2 Value rationality is
found in modernity in its political‒democratic forms as my discussions of The
City in Chapters 5 and 6 indicate. In addition there are other social forms such
as musical‒aesthetic creativity that cannot be fully rationalised. My discussion
of aesthetic and musical modernity in Chapter 15 suggests that the intellec-
tualisation or radical development of conceptualisation (including musical
conceptualisation) that purposive rationalisation requires cannot fully account
for other aspects that Weber would simply classify as ‘irrational’. He cannot
integrate them fully into a narrative concerning rationalisation. For example,
within the world of intimate social relations love is classified as such an irra-
tional force, as is the ‘work’ of the seventh note within the diatonic modern
musical system. As I argue, it is more fruitful to view these aspects as ‘out of
joint’, as resistant to ordering and intellectualisation rather than viewing them
as simply irrational. In addition to different cultural formations Weber’s
social theorising also points to the development of different modernities in
different regional – for him civilisational contexts.
In contemporary social theorising the result of the recognition of different
and comparative modern perspectives, experiences and long-term histories
has been the formation of a notion of multiple modernities. The ‘multiple
modernities’ approach tends to emphasise different geographical regions,
histories and interactions between civilisational contexts and modernity in
general. In other words it tends to regionalise the different experiences of
However, a regionalisation of modernity stills begs the question concerning
the nature of the constituent dimensions that are to be called ‘modern’ by
anyone in ‘really living modernity’, including those who deploy the term as part
of their intellectual vocabulary. This question is present either implicitly or expli-
citly in the regional or multiple modernities approaches. On the more formal level
of theorising, though, the emphasis is placed not so much on the distinctive-
ness of particular histories and regions, but more so on the constitutive
Introduction: Modernity is out of joint 3
dimensions through which modernity can be identified or reconstructed. This
book offers an alternative approach against this background.
In contemporary post-Parsonian social theorising three figures stand out
who have constructed their own formal versions of modernity. These figures
are Jürgen Habermas, Charles Taylor and Agnes Heller, whose works is dis-
cussed at length in the following chapters.4 Habermas, for example, has
re-emphasised a differentiated notion of modernity. In his hands, and in his
critical exchanges with Luhmann’s work, the notion of modernity and differ-
entiation came to be more or less synonymous. As will be further discussed in
Chapter 1, Habermas formally posits modernity as the internal differentiation
of the activities of communicative rationality in three areas concerned with
science, political legitimacy and (more or less) inner aesthetically determined
In his argument against historical materialism and his subsequent recon-
struction of critical theory Habermas argued that cultural change or changes
in world views are more important than changes in ‘material conditions’.
Learning processes that are imbedded in world views devalue and delegitimate
previously held views and conceptualisations through a formal‑pragmatic type
of reasoning. According to Habermas, there is a decentring of an under-
standing of a unified world (for example myth) to ones that differentiate
between new levels of learning and possible rationalisations. These rationali-
sations occur along the three different paths that have internal affinities with
language use. First, social rationalisation occurs in the dimension of objectivat-
ing thought with its formal‑pragmatic claim to propositional truth, which is the
path analysed by Max Weber and taken over by Adorno and Horkheimer in
their critique of instrumental rationality. Second, there is also the rationalisation
or historical development of moral‑practical insight with its formal‒pragmatic
relation to normative rightness, and third, there is the rationalisation or his-
torical development of aesthetic‑expressive capacity with its formal‑pragmatic
relation to truthfulness or authenticity (Habermas, 1984).
Habermas also breaks up society into a division between system and life-
world and the three-sphere model is mapped onto this division. Social systems
are external environments, and they regulate and validate themselves according
to purposive/cognitive or strategic knowledge. In modernity, this differentiation
and validation occurs through the medium of power, in terms of modern
bureaucratic states, and money, in terms of modern markets. Both operate
according to instrumental or strategic forms of rationality.
The lifeworld is formed according to norms, and it is where these norms
are learnt through intersubjective contexts and thematised. According to
Habermas, this intersubjectively constituted inner life of society does not
relate to a system simply as an environment, as do other systems; rather it
exists in its own right and resists total absorption into the system’s impera-
tives through socialised individuation, interpretative capacities, through which
people and societies develop a coherent identity, and normative reflexivity,
which can also become conflict over norms. For Habermas, the lifeworld is a
4 Introduction: Modernity is out of joint
sui generis parallel world to the system, constitutively different from it, and
without which any society can neither survive nor thrive.
For him, though, the relation between the lifeworld and system is judged in
terms of pathology or colonisation, principally of the lifeworld by the systemic
prerogatives of money and bureaucratic power, and normalisation. Normali-
sation, for Habermas, is the existence of democratic constitutionalism where
argument and law buttress one another. In many ways, what Habermas terms
‘civic disobedience’ or social protest could be viewed as his formulation of
modernity’s ‘out of joint’ condition, and it belongs (rightly) within the para-
meters of argumentation for which we take responsibility (Habermas, 1985:
95–116). In the end we are, for Habermas, argumentative animals.
In Charles Taylor’s view we are not argumentative animals, as such, but
narrating ones. As Taylor points out,

to know who I am is a species of knowing where I stand. My identity is

defined by the commitments and identifications which provide the frame
or horizon within which I can try and determine from case to case what
is good, or valuable, or what ought to be done, or what I endorse or
oppose. In other words, it is the horizon within which I am capable of
taking a stand. [In other words] [A] self exists only within what I call a
‘web of interlocutions’.
(Taylor, 1989: 27, 36)

These webs are constructed as narratives rather than as arguments, albeit

ones that move between being articulated in explicit, comprehensive and
transparent terms and indispensably inarticulate ones, to which his notion of
horizon refers.
It is in the context of his notion of horizon or frame that Taylor constructs
his basic thesis regarding modernity, and it is a three-pronged approach, as
will be further elaborated in some detail in Chapter 13. Taylor argues that, first,
the modern world is differentiated according to different imaginaries, which
provide frames or points of orientation for guiding our actions. These three
frames are the economy, self-ruling people or popular sovereignty, and the public
sphere with its distinction from the private sphere of the family and the con-
suming individual and household that has an individual or singular relation
to the market. In Taylor’s view this differentiation results in what has also
been termed ‘a divided self ’ or what he terms a buffered one. By this he
means that we separate our sense of ourselves into different domains, which
do not necessarily speak to one another (Taylor, 2004).
However, these three frames, even though they carve us up into distinct
inner realms, do more than just provide points of orientation. These frames are
also moral spaces that provide the basis for value discrimination, for example
between good and bad, good and evil. Nonetheless, the competing imaginaries
and the way we are divided up between them leads to an increasing sense of
incommensurability, which itself is an unease of modernity. In a second
Introduction: Modernity is out of joint 5
approach, though, Taylor also argues that these three modern imaginaries
and even the sense of incommensurability are under-girded and informed by a
specifically modern horizon or frame – an immanent one. In Taylor’s view, the
modern notion of immanency is one of modernity’s great myths and cultural
prejudices. For Taylor, the immanent frame is derived from the ‘mythic’ idea
that the resources for modern orientating narratives, and our capacity and
criteria for discrimination and judgement are located internally to the human
condition itself. In other words, according to Taylor, a narrative is constructed
from the seventeenth century onwards that argues that human beings are self-
sufficient in their own interpretavist resources, irrespective of whether these
come from reason, ‘the people’, or individual effort and vocation. Human
beings, themselves, define their own condition.
In Taylor’s view we are thus ‘out of joint’, and pathologically so. However,
and more importantly for him we are also deaf, and it is in this context that
he also makes a third move. He invokes romanticism as a counter-paradigm
which points to something beyond modernity’s rationalist form and content –
to mysteries and wonders both of this world and, for him, the next. Taylor’s
‘Romantic-religious spirit’ though is not defensively theological nor only
Catholic; rather it is an attempt to open onto horizons of wonder, mystery
and enchantment – forms of meaning and experience that he argues have
been delegitimated, closed down and ignored by modern secularisation. This
opening to enchanted worlds also makes us in Taylor’s terms ‘porous’. Porosity,
or his notion of the porous self, entails that we not so much integrate our
divided parts into a commensurate and unitary whole, but more importantly
develop a relation of depth to ourselves and thus and simultaneously to a
transcendent reality that opens beyond us. We are hence, not self-sufficient, or
only self-defining, in Taylor’s view. Although Taylor does not say so himself, a
porous self makes us musical. But we are living in unmusical times.
An alternative formal account of modernity that emphasises its ‘out of
joint’ character more so than the accounts given by Habermas and Charles
Taylor is formulated by Agnes Heller. Her account is formal in the sense that
she posits three logics through which modernity can be identified or recon-
structed. Yet, it is also one that is neither part of a learning process, nor a
problem to be solved, managed or negated. Nor is it an unfinished project
that has the teleological push of history behind it. It is not a system, although
it is ‘described’ or ‘reconstructed’ by her in terms of logics. Rather, modernity
is conceptualised by her as a historical period that is co-constituted along
three different axes: cultural imagination, logics or imperatives that give it a
certain systematicity, and values. In the case of the first aspect, modernity is
typified by the technical and historical imaginations or cultures. In the case of
the second, Heller organises the systematicity of modernity around three
logics: technology; the functional allocation of social positions; and political
power, which includes the institutions of freedom and institutions of govern-
ment, authority and coercion. Modernity is heterodox in both spatial and
temporal terms. Spatially, these logics ‒ technology, the functional allocation
6 Introduction: Modernity is out of joint
of social positions and political power ‒ ‘appear simultaneously, reacting to,
reinforcing, complementing and checking each other’ (Fehér and Heller, 1987:
201; Heller, 1999, 2011: 179–190).5 In historical or temporal terms modernity
is both dynamic and contingent. It is, thus, unstable and this instability gives
it the air of dysfunction, but this word, itself, conceals two more important
aspects of modernity for her – its openness and its insatiability. For Heller,
while the instability of modernity and its three logics of technology, the func-
tional allocation of social positions and political power mean that it is not only
unstable and dynamic but also insatiable or voracious. Its voraciousness comes
about from two quarters – the logics of the functional division of labour and
the market, and an ever increasing and expanding horizon of needs. The
latter is the hallmark of the culture of modernity.
Heller’s reconstruction of modernity is informed by a theory of values that
gives it its critical edge. She constructs this theory of values in hermeneutic
terms rather than quasi-transcendental ones in the manner of Habermas’s
version.6 In her view, the primary constitutive value in modernity is freedom.
However, freedom is paradoxical – it is universalistic but ungroundable – and
from this perspective modernity is conceptualised as an unresolvable paradox
or double bind. The paradox of modern freedom stems from its founding
principle: it is a foundation that provides no foundations. It is experienced
and interpreted in a variety of ways (Heller, 2011: 131–142, 1986, 1991). In
other words, if moderns are thrown into this condition of freedom, then it is
experienced as one without anchors and points of orientation. It is, and is
experienced, as a condition of contingency, in which even a sense of home in
both existential and cultural terms, can no longer be taken for granted.
It is this sense of the loss of taken-for-grantedness, this sense of contingency,
of homelessness, that for Heller marks the essential difference between pre-
modern and modern societies and the women and men who constitute and
participate in them. On one level the division of social positions, functions and
wealth carries this difference, as there is no continuity in life expectations or
experiences from the cradle to the grave. It is here that the gap between life as
a modern and its promissory note of freedom is most immediately experi-
enced. The experience between the empirical reality and the promissory note
can be articulated as conflict with all its dramas and passions.
Heller approaches her image of the contestatory dimension of modernity
from the vantage point of two modern political projects or paradigms through
which this contestation has been mobilised: a redemptive paradigm with its
totalitarian versions that once in power wants to eliminate conflict; and a
democratic paradigm, especially its republican version, that accepts conflict
and can live with it as part of the contingent condition of modernity. Here
conflict is transposed into politics. Modern societies, while dysfunctional or
which have a degree of dysfunction built into them, can cope with conflict
from a democratic‒pragmatic perspective.
The redemptive paradigm wants to rescue society in a single, grand gesture.
In modernity this gesture attempts to dissolve the paradox of freedom by
Introduction: Modernity is out of joint 7
integrating the competing logics or imaginaries of modernity under a hyper-logic
of the state to create a different modernity, the organising principles of which are
functionalism, identity, and fundamentalism. In this way, too, conflict is
annulled. The exemplary models for this other type of modernity were Nazi
Germany and the Soviet Union (Fehér et al., 1982; Fehér and Heller, 1987:
243–259; Heller, 2002a, 2002b). In more recently political history the
redemptive paradigm has been given a renewed life in the new fundamentalisms.
The new version of the redemptive paradigm qua fundamentalism is stylised,
ritualised, symbolic yet cruel, and in a way that homogenises and disregards
the complexity of the target group that has been constructed as the enemy
(Fehér and Heller, 1987; Heller, 2002c, 2011: 67–80; Rundell, 2013a). In this
sense, it belongs to the historical‒interpretative imaginary of modernity,
which gives shape and credence to actions but from a non-political redemptive
In contrast to the redemptive paradigm Fehér and Heller construct an ideal
type of the democratic paradigm. This paradigm is also in contrast to the
liberal model with its split between the economic‒public and private spheres,
and its philosophical anthropology of singular private interest. Heller’s concept
of the political is the nadir point where, for her, the double bind or the paradox
of freedom comes to rest. For her, the substantive aspect of modern politics
does not revolve around the issue or the topic, but the fact that people are
reflectively and hence dynamically part of the double bind itself (Heller, 1990:
119–127). In her view, otherness and difference are already built into the
dynamics of modernity and its paradox; it is already really and potentially
contestatory. Under these conditions the claim of participation in the public
domain can only work if social actors qua political actors participate in the
ethos of the historically interpretable universality of freedom. The nature of
the contest and its limit revolves around whether one accepts the notion of
freedom or not, and the symmetrical reciprocity of the other that this pre-
supposes as part of the terms of the dispute. If one does accept freedom,
otherness flourishes.
Conflicts within the social, public and the political imaginaries and
between them are viewed as normal rather than dysfunctional, and in this
sense there is no ‘post-conflict’ society, or a society of total integration at
either the social or political levels. However, for Heller, modernity is orga-
nised around more than a distinction between the normal and the dysfunc-
tional. For her, it is permanently ‘out of joint’, a historical period of
heightened disaggregation. This for her does not lead to perplexity, confu-
sion or relativism, but rather contingency, possibility and a greater need for
value discrimination on the basis of the universality of the value of freedom
(Heller, 1993, 2002).
Modernity, for Heller, not only involves the disaggregation of its imagin-
aries, political contours and dilemmas. It also sets adrift our ‘musicality’. Our
aesthetic point of orientation about what constitutes beauty or ugliness no
longer refers to a point of transcendence that occurred for example in the
8 Introduction: Modernity is out of joint
works of Plato and Ficino. The loss of a transcendental point of reference in
the Divine entailed that the concept of the beautiful became homeless. This
problem, in the history of modern philosophy and aesthetics, was apparently
solved through the idea of ‘art’, which became the highest principle, and
bridged the gap between heterogeneity and unity. The ‘work of art’ emerged
as the ‘sole authentic embodiment of Beauty’ (Heller, 2011: 47–64). In other
words, ‘art’ emerged and split into two registers that appear related, especially
if Kant’s Critique of Judgment is taken as a reference point. In the wake of the
differentiation of the good, the true and the beautiful put forward by Kant in
his three critiques and accepted by both Habermas and Heller, both the
source and the eidos or form of beauty, of love were thrown into relief and
into question. If both creativity and beauty are turned into human principles
then it is unclear even in Kant’s work, especially in his Critique of Judgment,
what could ground them. The questions again emerge: what is a work of art?
Where does it dwell? What relation do we have with them, if any?
The answers to these questions revolve around the issue of differentiation
and the autonomy of art. According to Heller’s critical reconstruction, the
autonomy of art means two things, especially if the works by such writers as
Goethe, Humboldt, Nietzsche and Adorno are the point of reference. Art is
autonomous with its own principles and practices, which establishes the norm
of aesthetic autonomy that defines what a work of art is and what it is not, for
example high culture as distinct from entertainment or mass culture. The
defence of the autonomy of the sphere of art or high culture emerges at
precisely this point.
Heller does not respond to this sense of loss, homelessness and subsequent
attempts to construct an ‘autonomy of art’ in terms of either a defence of
high culture or by appealing to a porous self (Taylor), but in terms of the
relationships that we establish with works of art themselves. The question, for
Heller is how we construct a relationship with works of art, and how they
might reciprocate. As such it remains a ‘this-sided’ approach to the question
of aesthetics and the beautiful. This path invokes another notion of autonomy
that is also explored in Chapter 15 of this book through music: a triadic
relation of creative improvisation, the nature of the work, and constant creative
Heller’s emphasis is on the latter, that is, interpretation qua involvement.
For her, reception is a hermeneutic‒expressive that is highly personal, like a
loving friendship (Heller, 2011: 47–64; Rundell, 2011: 25–28). We first
approach an artwork with a regard and interact with it with a contemplative
yet friendly attitude. We stay with it, muse and reflect over it. It is in this sense
that the artwork speaks to us and we to it, sometimes changing our perspec-
tive. In addition the regard contains a value perspective – we simply do not
come to the artwork empty handed, so to speak. The regard is constituted
through a value perspective that shifts our gaze away from the heterogeneity
and fast pace of everyday life in order to obtain a new experience and
Introduction: Modernity is out of joint 9
Imaginary turns in social theory
For Taylor, and similarly for Habermas and Heller, what it is to imagine or con-
struct social spaces is really about how to narrativise these spaces. While for
Habermas, narrativisation is grounded in the quasi-transcendental capacity for
language, narrativisation for Taylor and Heller is an hermeneutically constituted
one. However, and leaving the work of Heller to one side, the main point here is
that for Habermas and Taylor – but in contrasting ways – the imaginative
dimensions of human action are in the first and last instance subordinated to
language and theorised through linguistic paradigms. This subordination has led
to some surprising results. There are difficulties in Habermas’s and Taylor’s
versions in accounting for the development of ‘the new’ and the contingencies
that this entails. In Chapters 1 and 14 I argue that Habermas subordinates the
problem of the ‘the new’ to evolutionary learning processes, while Taylor trans-
poses the problem into one that concerns mystery and transcendence. In contrast,
the oeuvre of Cornelius Castoriadis is one such body of work that has addressed
this issue of creativity in insightful ways with lasting results.
The problem of ‘the new’ and the modern is for Castoriadis a problem of the
disruption of heteronomous society by those who wish to establish autono-
mously constituted social relations. For him, ‘the new’ is a deeply political issue,
although it is grounded in a reflection concerning its ontology. Notwithstanding
attempts to place Castoriadis in dialogue with the hermeneutic tradition, his
work resists this dialogue as well as any subordination of the problem of social
meaning and cultural formation to a linguistically constituted domain. Instead
he insists on and reworks this problem in order to free it from the moorings of
language and forms of functional thought.7 For Castoriadis, the central stake
concerns the issue of social creativity and the creation of the new, for which
neither the linguistic turn nor hermeneutics can successfully account.
In order to pursue this stake Castoriadis turns to the neglected current of the
imagination in occidental thought, prior to and alongside its presence in roman-
ticism.8 In Castoriadis’s view the work of the imaginary is the constituting work of
the human animal. This does not mean that this work of the imaginary is not
institutionalised, is not accompanied by materiality and material life or does not
take social form and shape and is not socially shared and experienced. It is, but it is
not reducible to these forms and experience alone. More accurately, Castoriadis
posits and theorises two separate and ontologically constitutive domains of the
imaginaries – the world of social imaginaries and the world of the psyche or
the radical imaginary. Each is irreducible to the other. This double but irre-
ducible ontologically constituted division that constitutes the human condition
entails, in Castoriadis’s view, that we are constituted and caught in this double
labyrinth, a labyrinth from which we can neither escape nor transcend. Rather,
we are ‘doomed’ to creativity – to imagine and create and possibly institutio-
nalise these two patterns of imagining that stand in tension with one another.
A more detailed discussion of Castoriadis’s work unfolds throughout the
course of this book; however, I want to emphasise the importance he places on
10 Introduction: Modernity is out of joint
the notion of the imaginary and especially the social imaginary, which informs
the notion of imaginaries of modernity that I employ throughout. Notwith-
standing the emphasis that is placed on autonomy qua the political, Castoriadis’s
claim for autonomy is more than simply a political one. It is a thesis which stems
from the reworking of a philosophical anthropology that works with the idea of
self-creation and develops the notion of imaginary significations.
To get at the idea of human creativity as a social project that is at the core of
any horizon of meaning, that is, humankind’s immanent and creative imaginative
capacity, Castoriadis argues that functional, structural or systemic frame-
works do not exhaust the problem of the constitution of society. Attempts to
explain the existence and origin of social institutions in terms of their integration
into a network of functionality ignores the fact that the securing of this order
takes place through social meanings. Castoriadis initiates what has been
termed an imaginary turn in contemporary critical theorising (Rundell,
2004a). This problem of meaning implicitly indicates the manner in which
Castoriadis approaches the nature of the linguistic and the symbolic through
a critique of structuralism. Again there is a usual or conventional interpretation
against which he posits his own:

either symbolism is seen as merely a neutral surface covering as an

instrument that is perfectly adequate for expressing a pre-existing context,
the ‘true-substance’ of social relations, neither adding anything nor taking
anything away. Or else a ‘special logic’ of symbolism is acknowledged, but
this logic is viewed wholly as the insertion of the symbolic within the
rational order, which imposes its own consequences whether these be
intended or not.
(Castoriadis, 1987: 118)

This is precisely what Castoriadis argues against. For him, there is a core of
social meaning that exists prior to linguistic and symbolic forms and to which
these necessarily refer (Castoriadis, 1987: 139, 2015: 59–69).
To get at the pre-symbolic core of social meaning Castoriadis makes a dif-
ferentiation between three forms of human activity and interaction: perception
with its eye on the empirical, thought with its eye on the rational and the
imagination. It is imagination, or what Castoriadis prefers to call imaginary
creation that ‘cannot be accounted for by reality, by rationality, or by the laws
of symbolism’ (Castoriadis, 1987: 141). It provides the centre of interpretation
and explanation, which gives the symbolic orders of all societies their unique
and unified meaning. Castoriadis puts it this way:

[There is] a system of imaginary significations that value or devalue, struc-

ture and hierarchise an intersecting ensemble of objects and corresponding
lacks; and it is here that one can read more easily than elsewhere what just
is as uncertain as uncontestable – the orientation of a society.
(Castoriadis, 1987: 150)
Introduction: Modernity is out of joint 11
In other words, according to him all societies refer to horizons of imaginary
significations from which are generated and constituted symbolic, linguistic
and material social forms.9
More importantly, the social imaginary is the creative centre of the social,
and it is this emphasis on social creativity that pushes Castoriadis’s notion of
the imaginary beyond interpretivist parameters. For Castoriadis, the core of
any society consists in the creation of horizons of meaning. More specifically, the
creative, open-ended imaginary is itself metaphorically captured by Castoriadis
under the name ‑ magma. Castoriadis’s core anthropological notion is that
humankind has an inexorable capacity for creativity. Because of this, humankind
creates all forms of signification including reasoning and meanings of time
and the socio-historical ways these are articulated. The obfuscation of this
creative dimension of human temporality has entailed a conflation between
the notions of time and history in occidental thought. For Castoriadis, one of the
key problems of occidental thought is the way in which it has constructed the
notions of time and history in processes that deny the specificity of history
itself. For him, identity thinking of the western tradition has conceptualised
time in terms of points along/among linear, circular or random paths. Corre-
spondingly, the western ontological construction of being in terms of a fun-
damental determinacy entails the emergence of difference from an initial fixed
(or transcendental) starting point. Difference emerges from the same. In contrast,
Castoriadis argues that time ‒ and here he is referring to history ‒ is an
advent and a creation, or more properly a creativity that lies at the heart of
the human condition. It is ‘the alteration of human historicity, a way of
making itself be, of bringing itself into existence as society’ (1987: 206). This
self-alteration occurs from a present and it is through this that a distinction
from a past occurs. A present can be of shorter or longer durations, and the
longer ones have been captured under the guise of ‘civilisations’ or the long
dureé. This entails that while there is always a time of social representing
(legein) and a time of social doing (teukhein), each constantly refers to a
horizon of meaning out of which are created possibilities. Societies are not
uni-linear; nor is there a uni-linear ‘thread’ that connects all societies
and moves them in a particular direction. Castoriadis’s position is an anti-
philosophy of history or theory of social evolution. Instead, he argues that
history always occurs from a present and constitutes anything that may vaguely
be called a society. In Castoriadis’s view, there are multiples of societies that
are indeterminate social creations, the cores of which are social imaginaries.10

Imaginaries of modernity: Tensions, politics, cultures

With the above discussion in mind I deploy the notion of ‘tensions of modernity’
or dissonant modernities throughout this book in order to posit an image of
modernity that emphasises its indetermination and internal differentiation,
yet also its depth. The argument here is that modernity is not the outcome of
an evolutionary process or historical development, a teleological perspective
12 Introduction: Modernity is out of joint
that places its emphasis on a background notion of determination. Rather
modernity is unique and indeterminate and as such, so are the constitutive
dimensions that can be identified or reconstructed as ‘modern’ by its participants,
including the social and critical theorists who deploy this term.
In the chapters that follow, I term these participants contingent strangers
rather than simply as strangers per se, in the manner of Simmel’s work. In
Simmel’s view, strangers are those social actors who are defined by their
position in relation to those who are known over time and remain more or less
in one fixed place (Simmel, 1971b). Elias would also render these social actors
as ‘outsiders’ in contrast to those who were ‘established’ (Elias and Scotson,
1994). Although the relations between the two may change over time and have
their own power differentials they nonetheless, for Simmel and Elias, define a
certain ontological social condition defined through familiarity and strangeness.
The notion of the contingent stranger I employ contests this ontologically
bordered or bounded social condition. Rather, the contingent stranger is defined
not through the conditions of the familiar and the strange, the insider and the
outsider, but rather the mobile as against the fixed, the abstract as against the
concrete. These conditions typify the modern experience in large, small and
intimate settings. As has often been observed modernity is the period of the
mobility of populations, the transience or impermanence of home, and the
mediations of relations between social actors of impersonal social imaginaries
that abstract them from their personal condition and sense of themselves –
whether these social imaginaries be constituted in the form of roles, money,
territoriality, procedural rules and laws, citizenship or politics, or even love.
In my account, as discussed throughout the book, there are different moder-
nities, constituted by contingent strangers with their own imaginaries and
cultural horizons. This restless open-endedness, and lack of coordination and
integration may be experienced by modern social actors or contingent strangers
as both freedom and unease. These tensions of freedom and unease have
entailed that conflicts have occurred in terms of institutional patterns, ways of
thinking and acting and the human self-images that accompany these – for
example, of rationality, freedom, the accumulation and export of capital, or
the accumulation and export of the power of the nation.
In addition these conflicts have neither been immediate nor straightfor-
ward. Rather, a continuous selection, reinterpretation, and reformulation of
traditions and modernities have occurred that have given rise to new political
and institutional arrangements and cultural programmes that have their own
antinomies and tensions. As Eisenstadt has pointed out, these multiple points
of intersection at economic, political and civilisational junctions have entailed
the constant reconstruction of conceptions of collective identity, including
negative and positive conceptions of others, irrespective of whether these
conceptions are created in the West, the non-West, or are a result of interactions
between them (Eisenstadt, 2002: 39). The formulation of dissonant moder-
nities opens our understanding to non-Western versions of modernity that are
not circumscribed by evolutionary or occidental models, as will be explored in
Introduction: Modernity is out of joint 13
the analysis of Oman in Chapter 10. Oman is of interest because it had its
own uninterrupted long history, self-identity and royal power with which
occidental and other powers negotiated. It is here that long-term perspectives
and civilisational prejudices show themselves most clearly in a way that is
immanently conflict ridden but can also be open in their horizons.11 In other
words, the spatial horizon shifts from a modernity conceived as a social form
with a single defining centre (usually Western Europe) to one that has multiple
centres and multiple geographical locations, including the non-Occidental
‘Old’ Worlds of the Middle East, Africa and Asia and the ‘New Worlds’ of
the Americas and Australasia. The spatial dimension, though, not only refers
to multiple centres and geographies, but also to the multiple spaces where
modern subjects qua contingent strangers co-habit, such as nations, cities and
polities – spaces that they create but which also constrain them. The tension
between the creation of spaces and the constraints that they impose creates a
dissonance that emits its own sounds of contingency and possibility.
The notion of dissonant modernities also challenges the sense that time is a
predetermined horizon in terms of either cyclical or linear versions that
combine past, present and future in terms of a more or less uninterrupted
continuity. Modernity in each of its imaginaries disaggregates this sense of time.
To put it slightly differently, both time and space are pluralised, as is the sense
of histories of any given present (Berman, 1982; Rundell, 1998, 2009). The
temporal horizon of modernity can also shift from one usually conceptualised
in terms of an originary moment emerging in the eighteenth century, which is
supplanted by a postmodern condition in the late twentieth century (Lyotard,
1984). Rather, these studies indicate that there is a temporal horizon beginning
in at least the fifteenth century that is fractured by a series of variegated dis-
tinctions, or a plurality of temporal horizons and possibilities (pasts, presents
and futures) even in the midst of the civilisational or historical long dureé.
Because these constituent imaginaries are also indeterminate creations they
stand in a disaggregated rather than only differentiated relation to one
another in a way that does not ‘add up’ or click together as a system. This
entails that this formal theorising does not construct modernity as a totality. I
refer to these different modernities or differentiated and competing visions or
social imaginaries in the following five ways:

 the general and global monetarisation of social life constituted by the

 the formation of public spheres and modern democratisation;
 the sovereignty of nations in increasing global contexts, including imperial
and colonizing ones, where control of the instruments of control is their
defining characteristics. This control of control includes territorialisation,
juridification, state centralisation, nationalisms that are often based around
race and ethnicity, and totalitarian and fundamentalist versions;
 functionalisation and increasing technical creativity, expansion and control
of labour, signs and codes;
14 Introduction: Modernity is out of joint
 expressivist aesthetics in search of transcendence, enchantment and
re-enchantment, paradox and surprise, which includes aesthetic modernism
and Romanticism.

These social imaginaries can also be identified variously as an economic

human self-image, in which the moneterisation of social life is its central
mobilising motif. They can also refer to a political human self-image in which
citizenship in its varying forms is its central mobilising category, or as a juridical
self-image in which national‒territorial sovereignty is its central mobilising
image. The modern technical‒industrial imaginary can be identified as a
cognitive human self-image in which technical mastery is its central mobilis-
ing category. The modern aesthetic imaginary refers to heightened inner self-
awareness and self-expression in terms of the expression of the inarticulable
dimensions of life, its beauty and its suffering, the joy and grief that is part of
it. All of these imaginaries and their accompanying human self-images are
motivated, though, by senses of contingency and uncertainty. We can call any,
but not usually all, of these modern imaginaries home even in the context of
our everyday and not only our working lives. These modern social imaginaries
provide somewhere to dwell, or even from which to be alienated.
Each of these social imaginaries can be viewed as constitutive, competing,
irreducible yet intersecting dimensions of modernity with their own long his-
tories, interpretative conflicts and civilisational forms that can be taken up
differently. As indicated above, the emphasis on indetermination and dis-
tinctive modern social imaginaries in formal and substantive terms highlights
a threefold combination of the specificity of modern social imaginaries, the
long histories of regions and cultures and conflicts at the juncture of these
forces. These combinations are historically indeterminate and generate a
social form that is tension-ridden yet also open.
The studies that follow primarily focus on three of these social imaginaries –
the formation of public spheres and modern democratisation, nation state
formation and expressivist aesthetics in search of transcendence.12 Situated
within the broader view of social imaginaries outlined above I argue that
modernity is ‘out of joint’. This does not mean that like Hamlet’s sense of
Denmark, modernity is rotten, unaligned, needs to be remedied or reset like a
dislocated shoulder. Nor is this ‘out of jointness’ incoherent, nor does it lead
to states of melancholy and confusion. In contrast to the functionalised and
medicalised images in much contemporary critical theory, the notion of being
‘out of joint’ means that there is no necessary or immanent connection
between the imaginaries in terms of their ‘logics’ or principles. Modernity
does not add up. This ‘out of jointness’ gives modernity its sense of openness.
One can move or learn to move between the various imaginaries with various
degrees of difficulty or ease. One is not a specialist in all of them, but may
have a vocational commitment to one. One might even have a heart in
another, despite Weber’s protestations. Weber’s attitude is echoed in Taylor’s
work. In his view the depth and musicality of modern selfhood is unable to be
Introduction: Modernity is out of joint 15
sustained within a modern register and without recourse to religious or
extra-mundane sources.
Yet, indeterminate modernity need not leave us bereft, empty and ‘unmusical’.
In contrast to Taylor’s assessment I argue in Chapters 14 and 15 that there
are modern as well as philosophico-anthropological resources available to
address, if not fully answer, the contingent stranger’s quest for depth and
inner subjectivity, even in the most intimate areas of love and suffering that
open onto the transcendent and the unsayable. This quest for depth and inner
subjectivity is still present and takes many forms in modernity. In Chapter 15
I explore this quest mainly through music with its enchantments and trans-
cendences, harmonies and dissonances, the result of which is an increase
rather than decrease in inner subjectivity. It is not only dissonance that is of
interest here, but also chromaticism. In musical terms, chromaticism can be
viewed as the need for the depth, range and expressiveness of subjectivity. The
modern world is noisy and unmusical. But it can also be breathtakingly
musical. Musicality is neither an abandonment of subjectivity nor isolation, but
a creative openness to the strangeness of oneself, of others and their differences,
and to worlds or mysteries beyond ourselves.
Against this disaggregated background modern social imaginaries are none-
theless mobile. They are ‘global’ and are manifested in all places including
hitherto forbidden ones – places of worship, royal courts, the family with its rule
of the patrimonial head. Modern social imaginaries challenge and transform
these, even meeting deep resistance that might endure but also might sway and
give way. Modern social imaginaries are expansive; but they are also limiting. In
the case of nations they expand beyond ‘home’ territories, as was the case with
modern empires and colonial projects; yet these same ‘home’ territories often
define and try to limit the terms of the expansion of other imaginaries and
other forms of mobility. From another perspective, the modern monetarisation
of social life does make money a generalisable abstract imaginary that, as
Simmel famously posited replaces face-to-face social relations and hence makes
social immediacy into a distanciated social abstraction. But money in modernity
does not or cannot buy everything. Other social imaginaries – from the demo-
cratic, to the territorial‒juridical, or the modern enchanted‒aesthetic – limit
and make counterclaims against the putative unlimited purchasing power of
money in modern social life. Votes or political power are identified as corrupt
if they are bought and this purchase contravenes the value-imaginary of freedom
and autonomy – as citizens and electorates who should be able to publicly and
without interference elect their representatives, and in a small number of
cases – as the modernity of the polity is not ancient Greece – their officials.
Again, from another perspective explored in Chapter 14, women qua con-
tingent strangers – like contingent strangers generally – no longer enter into
familial, intimate and erotic relationships that are not of their own choosing.
If they are this older civilisational‒patriarchal arrangement can be contested
and delegitimated on the basis of the values of autonomy and freedom that
have been culturally imagined in ways that modernise the notion of love.
16 Introduction: Modernity is out of joint
Yet, modern social actors and social movements who want to ‘heal’ or
‘reset’ this out of joint condition can do so by limiting and closing these
imaginaries in destructive ways. Internal to the creation of destructive and
negative options, including the redemptive paradigm and the totalitarian versions
are human self-images and cultural resources that negatively singularise the
‘other’ as an absolute outsider, rather than simply as a contingent stranger.
Elsewhere I have referred to these negative options as modern cruelties, which
social movements and social actors have created and mobilised, although they
have also been termed bestiarium (Fehér, 1987b; Rundell, 2013a). I am sug-
gesting that there are at least four modern cruelties that cannot be reduced to
the totalitarian and holocaustal forms, notwithstanding the suffering and
horror that occurred. They include colonial invisibilisation, which occurred in
the New Worlds of the Americas, Australia and Africa and involved the
indigenous populations of these continents. As will be seen in Chapter 9
indigeneity could be framed in terms of the concept of civilisation, which
assisted in defining those who had ‘civilisation’ and those who did not. The
Australian case of its indigenous population is a counter-example of what
happens when an indigenous population is categorised in non-civilisational
terms. The second form of modern cruelty is that of slavery, specifically the
‘American’ version or paradigm where the use of law and not simply violence
was utilised. In other words, slavery is a legal system. Although it may
overlap at the cultural level with colonial invisibilisation, slavery assumes a
visibility of ‘the other’ as a non-citizen legal property that can be bought and
sold. Slavery was contested and delegitimated in the lexicon of the modern
from the vantage point of the values of freedom and autonomy, although it
still casts its long shadow over the lived experience of Black America (West,
1999: 51–118).
The third modern form of cruelty was the holocaustal paradigm that
attempted industrial extermination of an entire group who were labelled as
absolute outsiders. It aimed at ‘purity’ through extermination and thus a
combination of identity politics in the form of racism and rational planful-
ness; and the creation of extermination camps became mobilising weaponry
(Arendt, 1979; Bauman, 1989). Soviet type societies have been the fourth but
by no means last form of modern cruelty. When not engaged in totalising
surveillance or determining the need structures of its citizens, the centralising
and functionalising state also aimed at a ‘re-education’ through work in
prison camps, which often ended in death. Hence there was a criminalisation
against the ‘worker’s state’ that was an integral part of the reincorporation or
re-centring of the state (Lefort, 2007; et al., 1982).13
In the spirit of ‘tensions of modernity’ there are, then, multiple forms of
cruelty and invisibilisation, which cannot be fully captured by concentrating
on only one of them, notwithstanding with full recognition the misery, dread
and terror that each entailed. However, a common aspect to all of these forms
is that experiments in modern cruelties aim at a dedifferentiation and an
enforced reduction of complexity, and are created or at least played out in the
Introduction: Modernity is out of joint 17
context of the imaginary of the nation state, although it can find expression in
some non-state places, too.
Each modern social imaginary has its own distinctiveness, whether it is mone-
tary calculation, national‒territorial juridification, the democratic de-centring
and circulation of power, functionalisation, or aesthetic inner self-expression.
However, they are identifiably modern in that they are all imbued with a
heightened sense of contingency, openness or closure. The experience and
importance of contingency and openness – no matter how ambivalently they
may be felt and co-constituted by contingent strangers, individually, or as
groups, classes or social movements – challenges the fixity of a pre-given
world and attempts to establish versions of modern cruelty.
Modernity can, thus, be viewed as pluri-dimensional imaginaries in which
there are irreducible tensions and conflicts between and within them, sometimes
in the context of civilisational long dureés. Thus, one particular imaginary
cannot be viewed as coextensive with modernity. In other words, while this
tension may appear as if one imaginary is being privileged against others, or that
there is a tendency towards systemic reunification and totalisation, nonetheless,
there is an irreducibility of the tension in one sphere to other spheres, and the
unresolvability of tensions between spheres. Ours is an age of simultaneities
that cannot be integrated with each other – a time whose worlds are permanently
out of joint, and cannot be realigned, solved, managed or escaped from. It is our
world, our here and now, our contingency, our creativity, our openness and
closure. In a formulation that owes as much to the work of Heller as it does to
Castoriadis, freedom and autonomy are possibilities qua human creations, as
are the misconceptions, misunderstandings, delusions, fantasies and dominating
forms of power that have hitherto existed and will continue to do so. Castoriadis
captures this sense in his distinction between autonomy and heteronomy.
However, as the complexity of modernity attests not everything is autonomy,
nor is it heteronomy. Because we can create the values, practices of autonomy and
freedom – as we can create the values, conditions, and practices of cruelty and
barbarism – we can also create different and hopefully better worlds. But
there is no guarantee, only fragile contingency.

1 In the history of concept formation in social theory the problem of different mod-
ernities also runs in parallel with the history of the concept of modernisation. By
the time of mid-twentieth-century social theory the term ‘modernisation theory’
had been deployed as a more general term, often in competition with the term
capitalism. However, it too, like the notion of capitalism, tended to reduce a more
complex set of circumstances to a single or determinative criteria often organised
around distinctions between the traditional and the modern or the pathological and
the normal – and sometimes these two sets of distinctions overlapped. Traditional
societies were those societies organised around community structures and forms,
high forms of mechanical solidarity, warrior or militaristic codes of conduct, and
chiefly forms of rule. Moreover, and as will be explored more critically in Chapter 9,
traditional societies were themselves divided between simple and primitive, and
18 Introduction: Modernity is out of joint
more complex and differentiated social forms, especially in terms of their power
structures. In contrast, modern societies are viewed as those that became increasingly
more complex, differentiated and dynamic in terms of their structures of power and
material and social life. The processes were viewed as central to the development
and characterisation of modern societies, and these were markets and patterns
and images of mass consumption, industrialisation and the increasing division of
labour. Apart from these ‘material’ processes other cultural and political ones
were also viewed as important. These additional processes included secularisation,
that is, the emergence of world views that used science and formal law as the basis
for legitimation, mass education, the separation between civil society and the state,
and the formation of parliamentary democracy as the conduit through which social
power circulated (Durkheim, 1964; Weber, 1971; Parsons, 1971). These processes
became viewed as normal for modern societies in terms of the paradigm of social
evolution that emerged in the nineteenth century and came to dominate twentieth-
century sociology, including functionalism and systems theory from Durkheim, to
Parsons and Marxism from the Second International to Althusserian structuralism.
There was an assumption that societies moved on a historical trajectory based on
these dynamic processes, and those that did not were viewed as backward or
underdeveloped (Walicki, 1969, 1975). Modernisation was viewed as a transforming
process that was irreversible irrespective of positive or negative evaluations.
Development theory continues this trend usually from an economistic perspective.
2 The works of the classical social theorists discussed in the book are approached
from a double vantage point that first explores and addresses notions of contingency,
and tension or dissonance in the context of the multiple yet unique conditions of
modernity that is, second, undertaken from the point of view of a post-classical
attitude, which includes among other things, a scepticism towards the unity of a
social form as well as a unity of an oeuvre. What is taken as a post-classical atti-
tude is an emancipation of social and critical theories from the spirit of Marxism,
‘Weberianism’, or ‘Durkheimianism’, and thus from the burden of prejudicial
receptions and even the self-(mis)understandings of authors, which took on the
legacy of orthodoxy. The post-classical attitude also extends to critical theorising
and some of the traditions or currents that go either explicitly or implicitly by its
name, whether one is referring to the works of the Frankfurt School, especially
Theodor Adorno and Jürgen Habermas; the Budapest School, especially the work of
Agnes Heller; or the major figures associated with the journal Socialism or Barbarism,
that is Cornelius Castoriadis and Claude Lefort. One can, then, revisit the social and
critical‒theoretical classics and traditions in order to extend and generalise their
perspectives to other theoretical traditions, contexts and problems.
3 There is a burgeoning research literature in the field in what may be termed neo-
Weberian ‘modernity studies’ that includes the works of Schmuel Eisenstadt and
Johann P. Arnason. Arnason’s work, together with his constant dialogue with the
work of Castoriadis is a response to the Habermasian version. Leaving the works
of Eisenstadt and Arnason to one side, much of this literature also emphasises
modernity in either historical or regional terms without unpacking the theoretical
frameworks through which the term itself is deployed. On the one hand, modernity
is deployed as a trope for the investigation into a history of ideas no matter how
interesting this history may be or how it may challenge conventional historiographies
of ‘the origins of modernity’ (see for example, Israel, 2002; Toulmin, 1990). Even
Goody, 2004 belongs here. On the other hand, modernity is legitimately investigated
in non-western settings such as Islamic modernity (see for example, Hallaq, 2014),
‘Caribbean’ modernity (see Gilroy, 1995) or the modernity of the Indian sub-
continent (see, for example, Chatterjee, 1993). Within this literature one is left
with an underlying sense of modernity being reduced to a single formulation such
as consumer society, capitalism, industrialisation, state formation, colonialism,
Introduction: Modernity is out of joint 19
rather than more complex pictures, notwithstanding the aims of much of this
4 It is with some hesitation and reluctance that Foucault’s work is not discussed here,
notwithstanding an admiration over many years. Foucault has been at the forefront of
a continuing critique of modernity for its instrumentalisation, governmentalisation
and medicalisation, which sets the parameters for subsequent critiques of modernity
on the basis of its bio-politics. However, there is a one-sidedness that concerns, for
him, a preoccupation with two interconnected dimensions of modernity – the
formation of objectivistic forms of knowledge and forms of governmental power.
This one-dimensionalisation is evident, for example in two ways that open on to
his historiography of the modern and his meta-principles, notwithstanding his
genealogical ‘method’. The first interconnected aspect occurs between Section 1 and
Section 2 of Discipline and Punish in which there is an assumption of a rupture
from the Absolutist pre-modern to the disciplinary‒carceral modern, and the
second occurs between Volumes 1 and 2 of The History of Sexuality that indicates
a search for a normative alternative, the germs of which are found in Ancient
Greece. These ruptures tend to reduce modernity to a flat surface – a boulevard –
in which its other contours are either absent or minimised. To be sure, the notion
of resistance – a counter-image of power qua contestation qua freedom qua ‘not
to be disciplined’ that Foucault places at the core of his work is an attempt to
counter this tendency and indicates that his work moves between Nietzsche and
Kant, rather than between Nietzsche and the pre-Socratics.
5 The following discussion of Heller’s work also draws on Rundell, 2011: 1–28. The
reference to ‘modernity out of joint’ as this chapter’s title owes much to her work.
6 The interpretivist stance that Heller gives to her theory of modernity is underlaid
by a philosophical anthropology that brings together rationality, needs, feelings and
values. Needs and feelings are both personal and social. They are also orientative
and provide a bridge to a public world. Orientations are also provided through two
types of context with their own forms of rationality. Heller terms the first form
‘rationality of reason’ or the rationality that gives everyday life its coherence and
makes it comprehensible. The second type of rationality is what she terms ‘rationality
of intellect’ or a second order rationality that throws this everyday life into relief,
and allows us to critically judge it. This second order rationality is mobilised through
values, and Heller makes a distinction between particularistic and universalistic ones.
The universalistic ones are freedom and life (Heller, 1985).
7 For Castoriadis this functionalisation also includes the psychoanalytic tradition. In
this sense and despite his work on Freud his own formulations are both post-Freudian
and post-Lacanian.
8 The reception of Castoriadis’s work has been enriched by further recent studies on
it, for example Klooger (2009) and Adams (2011; Adams et al., 2015: 15–52).
However, a hermeneutic‒phenomenological aspect of Castoriadis’s work should not
be overstated, nor should his work be viewed as a version of Schelling’s philosophy
of the imagination, which itself falls into a philosophy of nature. Castoriadis’s
abiding point of contact is the unfinished business of Kant’s formulations of
faculty of the imagination in the Critique of Pure Reason, as well as the nuggets
that are contained in Aristotle’s De Anima and Fichte’s Science of Knowledge. In
this context, his work is also an ongoing immanent critique of Heidegger, often
without mentioning his name.
9 To be sure, Castoriadis accepts that there are practical tasks and conceptual schemas
that are required and which socialised humans undertake in order to reproduce
their lives. He calls these elementary human tasks and schema legein and teukhein.
Legein refers to distinguishing, choosing, positing, assembling, counting, speaking
while teukhein refers to assembling, adjusting, making, constructing that is, to
social doing. There is, though, this something other which conventional occidental
20 Introduction: Modernity is out of joint
constructions/institutions of legein and teukhein have constantly circumscribed and
overlooked. More centrally they are co-constituted with the imaginary. This is the
constant, indeterminate element that is constantly at work ‘inside’ legein and teukhein,
simultaneously creating and instituting them, opening and recreating them.
10 Neither Castoriadis’s, Heller’s, nor my own positions result in relativism. Quite the
opposite. There is for Heller and Castoriadis a value-saturated vantage point –
freedom (Heller) or autonomy (Castoriadis) that can challenge, rupture and even
constitute a present. These universalising vantage points, however, are not in the
first instance internal to the philosophical anthropologies that propel their work
into life. Social actors and social movements create them contingently as do the
social actors qua social and critical theorists who create their own critical theories.
11 Post-colonial thought can be located within this theoretical matrix as it investigates
and throws into relief the cultural and political forms and historiographies of
‘civilizational’ claims and counterclaims during and after the period of colonial –
really imperial – expansion and contestation between empires and within empires
by those seeking national‒juridical independence in the form of the nation state.
12 I have discussed the modern technical-industrial imaginary in Rundell, 2012b, and
have pointed to the monetarisation of social life in my critical analysis of Marx’s
work (see Rundell, 1987).
13 These two forms have been conflated and taken over as a single paradigm for the
bio-political critique of modernity that sees it reduced to a form of ‘bare life’, see
Agamben, 1998. In addition to these four modern types of cruelty the invention of
Australian-type off-shore proecessing refugee centres indicates the creation of a
new form of modern institutional cruelty.
Part 1
Tensions of modernity
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1 From communicative modernity to
modernities in tension

From his earliest work onwards, Jürgen Habermas has been a theorist of
modernity and has deployed – if not always explicitly – an image of a modern
world that is internally differentiated, rather than one that is coordinated by a
single totalising logic, such as that of capitalism. Sociologically, Habermas
contests the one-dimensional view of modern societies that sees them as deriving
from a basic unifying core, feature or structure, the assumption of which pro-
duces a totalising picture that becomes the basis for a totalising critique. More
recently, Habermas’s sociological discourse of modernity has also enabled him
to engage with the post-1989 and post-9/11 environments that include pheno-
mena such as terrorism, unilateralism, population movements, and new
nationalisms as well as post-national politics and multiculturalism. Instead of
upholding a modernisation theory that privileges economic and industrial
development, and a neoliberalism that privileges markets, then, Habermas is
able to critically engage in the so-called ‘new’ global environment with his
political ideal and programme of deliberative democracy and cosmopolitanism,
underpinned by his theory of communicative competence and learning processes
(Habermas, 1996, 2001, 2006, 2009).
Nonetheless, this chapter will seek to contrast Habermas’s sociological dis-
course of modernity and his underlying theory of evolutionary learning processes
with an alternative theory of modernity as tension-ridden, dynamic and multiple.
In what he has termed ‘the linguistification of the sacred’, Habermas has
argued that there is an internal connection between the increasingly complex
and differentiated evolution of our relations with nature and the organisation
of society, and the equally differentiated evolution of cultural forms (1987a).
In Habermas’s view, these cultural forms are embodied arguments, rather than
only world views. However, the first section of the chapter will argue that, in
tying argumentation and the evolution of world views together, Habermas
circumscribes his own sociological discourse of modernity.
In the second section, Habermas’s theory of modernity will be contrasted
with a counter-model which is more pluri-dimensional and tension-ridden,
and thus contestable and open-ended. Rather than drawing on a linguistic
24 Tensions of modernity
paradigm and evolutionary impulses, this counter-model is based on the
concatenation of historically indeterminate social imaginaries, among which
there are irreducible tensions, conflicts and interpenetrations. This alternative
theory of modernity opens our understanding to non-Western versions of
modernity that are not circumscribed by evolutionary or occidental models.1

Habermas’s sociological discourse of modernity

While it may appear that Habermas’s work is tied and oriented to a European
project and a European modernity, and can thus be charged with a Euro-
centrism, he avoids this charge by grounding his sociological discourse of
modernity in a post-metaphysical philosophy that appeals to universal quasi-
transcendental and linguistically constituted competences that develop at the
social level through culturally situated evolutionary learning processes
(Habermas, 1979: 5–44). As is well known, for Habermas, modernity as a societal
type is characterised by a differentiation and development of three types of
action and institutional complexes – science, morality and political legitima-
tion, and aesthetics. This differentiation has a homology at the philosophical
level in that the differentiation of society is matched by the differentiation of
rationality and the formation of modalities of reason, knowledge and action
appropriate to the three spheres: science is developed according to the prin-
ciples of a cognitive construction of rationality with its validation in terms of
truth; political and legitimate patterns of action and knowledge develop and
proceed according to the principles of a moral‒practical rationality with its
validation in terms of normative rightness; and modern aesthetics develops
according to its own distinctive forms of rationality, the expressive, with its
own forms of validation regarding truthfulness and authenticity. The result of
this ‘internal differentiation of the sacred’, to draw on Habermas’s recon-
struction of Durkheim, is that there are three distinct linguistically constituted
(rather than simply mediated) realities with their own forms of validation
(Habermas, 1984, 1987a; Rundell, 1989: 5–24, 1992: 133–140).
For Habermas, at the level of the human species modernity is not only a
world-historical phenomenon, but also the result of species-wide learning pro-
cesses that are not reducible to context-dependent situatedness. To put it slightly
differently and in the language of Habermas’s critique of communitarianism,
modernity is not a ‘communitarian’ project (Habermas, 1998: 205–208, 2006:
115–193). Rather, it is an unfinished one in which its normative content for
legitimation can only be grounded in an intersubjectively constituted notion
of reasonableness that can be argued and learnt (Habermas, 1987b: 336–367).
In the context of crises of social differentiation, or of clashes between traditional
and post-traditional forms of life, Habermas argues that there is recourse to
‘intermundane learning processes’ through which the universality of norma-
tive rightness can be articulated, even if painfully and gradually (Habermas,
2006). Habermas thus combines his differentiated theory of modernity with a
commitment to the political form of modern society.
From communicative modernity to modernities in tension 25
Notwithstanding changes in formulations in Habermas’s oeuvre, it is con-
tinuously fuelled by a very simple idea. It is worth fleshing out this ‘simple
idea’ in order to grasp its complexity and insights, as well as its limitations
when confronted with Habermas’s own meta-theory.
In the context of ‘a modernity at variance with itself ’ (Habermas, 1987b:
396), Habermas is preoccupied with the public and non-violent strength of the
better argument. Everyone should be able to take a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ position to
statements about the world and the way it is understood – whether or not these
refer to nature, to society or to selves (Habermas, 1984: 70). In the wake of
his ‘linguistic turn’, Habermas develops a notion of politics, which, at its most
minimal and anthropological, means a non-violent intersubjectivity in the
making, where words – or, more strictly, sentences or speech acts – rather
than rituals or weapons, are the form of intercourse that counts. This utopian
horizon remains the central, obstinately persistent feature that resonates
throughout his work. The utopian horizon is thus freedom interpreted by him
as reflexive deliberation, which is his own version of democracy. This, in turn,
is formulated as a rationally motivated and discursively redeemable consensus
formation. Moreover, it typifies his work as belonging to one of the self-
understandings of modernity – a self-understanding that he constantly
defends, criticises and reconstructs (Habermas, 1984, 1987a, 1987b).
At the sociological level, Habermas’s theorisation of the political form of
modern society is filtered through a historically rendered interpretation of the
formation of the public sphere. In Habermas’s important early analysis this
involved the separation of civil society from the state, and the public sphere’s for-
mation as a sphere of public opinion formed by free and autonomous citizens
separate from the private realm of capitalistic economic activity. Habermas
rightly argued that economic ‘man’ and ‘citizen’ stand as two differentiated
and competing aspects of the modern world, aspects that were either mini-
mised or treated as derivatives of one or the other in political philosophy and
social and critical theory from Kant onwards (Habermas, 1989).2
In subsequent work, Habermas has reconceptualised the public sphere in
the context of the intersubjectively constituted lifeworld, from which norms
originate and can be challenged in the form of reflexive argumentation. He
considers all other forms of interaction to be power-saturated, ‘distorted’ or
ideological, or determined by systems imperatives. For Habermas, this principle
of rational deliberation is also the founding one of critique. It is here that his
earlier historicised notion of the public sphere is circumscribed and folded into
a discursive notion of politics and is reconceptualised through the perspective
of his differentiated image of a modern society with its paradoxes and patho-
logies. These pathologies emerge as a result of the conflictual relations between
system and lifeworld, which constitute the battleground between the dynamics
of modernity. There are systemically derived colonising tendencies that
encroach upon the lifeworld, tendencies that take the form of administrative‒
bureaucratic control, which can be challenged by various groups and social
movements (Habermas, 1987a). For Habermas, this challenge should take the
26 Tensions of modernity
form of normatively grounded arguments that originate from the lifeworlds of
these social groups and social movements.
In Between Facts and Norms (1997a), Habermas theorises democracy in
terms of a deliberative constitutional republic in which the public sphere takes
the form of a formal‒deliberative democracy, still anchored in the intersubjective
and normative imperatives of the lifeworld. In Habermas’s later work, the
public sphere becomes identical with the notion of undistorted and unimpeded
rational‒deliberative argumentation about matters that can become topicalised
and politicised. The public sphere is viewed as both the space for rational
argument and a conduit through which democratisation is expressed in its
formalisation through law (Habermas, 1997a, 1998).
It is in this context of deliberative argumentation, which is the result of the
increasing, intersubjectively constituted ‘linguistification’ of the politically
‘sacred’, that Habermas articulates his concerns in terms of contemporary
political modernity. For him, political modernity is no longer synonymous with
the territorial boundedness of the nation state. The post-national constellation of
supra-state organisations, conventions and treaties means that for Habermas
political modernity has transcended state boundaries. The problem, for him, is
whether in this context there is normative ‘over-taxing’ or ‘over-stretching’ –
that is, whether normativity can be anchored in a community of citizens where
these political citizens do not share a common set of lifeworld experiences,
especially in the face of increasing diversity of forms of life in secular, post-
national and even religious settings. ‘Europe’ may not be enough (Habermas,
2001: 58–112, 2006: 115–193, 2009: 78–105). ‘Really existing Europe’
becomes a vehicle through which Habermas can explore his own disquiet,
with some interesting results that nonetheless expose the limits of his own
As Habermas makes clear in his remarks on cosmopolitanism or the
‘internationalisation of international law’, as well as on the place of religion in
‘post-secular’ society, a learning process is required on both sides of the
national‒post-national divide, or the secular‒religious one, to acknowledge the
linkage in modernity between norms, law and democracy in which recognition
of diversity – diverse polities, diverse religions – occurs through the modern
category of citizenship. Citizenship is the point of mediation for this diversity,
and democratic constitutions are their ‘linguistified’ form of articulation.
Citizenship, for Habermas, is an actor‒category, not only of inclusion, but
also, in principle, of the citizen qua actor’s capacity for rational, public,
deliberative and even ‘disobedient’ argumentation through which a political
consensus can be formed (Habermas, 1985: 95–116, 2006: 115–193, 2009: 59–77).
Habermas extends this notion of the democratic constitution to include
treaties and conventions that lie at the heart of the European Union and
other ‘post-national’ arrangements and agreements.
In so arguing, Habermas articulates and prioritises the rational‒argumentative
as a principle of linkage between the ‘linguistically-constituted’ formations or
systems of the nation state, post-national arrangements and political
From communicative modernity to modernities in tension 27
democratisation. For him, the linkage occurs between law and democracy with the
republican‒democratic constitution as the point of mediation. Constitutionality
mediates and operationalises the tension and mutual interpenetration between
legal forms and democratic‒discursive principles. This occurs on a background
assumption that citizens qua (contingent) strangers come together voluntarily
as free and equal consociates to form a legal community, rather than simply a
polis (Habermas, 1997a: 118–131).
In terms that attempt to bring together liberal and republican dimensions,
as well as formal and contextualist ones, Habermas argues that there is a neces-
sarily conceptual relation between private and public autonomy and right. The
bearers of individual rights are intersubjectively constituted, and it is here that
Habermas makes the internal link. In his view, the linguistically construed
intersubjective constitution of the lifeworld means that at the deepest anthro-
pological level, politics is already a form of association, a form of sociability
that is an open embodied argument which is normatively structured and
contestable. Instead of ‘the fragmentation of multicultural societies and the
Babylonian confusion of tongues in an overly complex global society’, there is
the capacity for normative claims and their validation in universalistic terms,
because these are imbedded in the speech acts between interlocutors (Habermas,
1996: 125–137, 1997a: 1–41). For Habermas, the modern constitution as the
form of modern politics is an institutionalised form of intersubjectively con-
stituted interlocution. As indicated above, this theory of political modernity is
the centrepiece of Habermas’s entire work.
However, in tying political forms to language and to sociocultural evolution,
Habermas is faced with at least two problems. By linking history with validation,
and especially with the validation of norms, he ultimately considers the formal
articulation of these norms in argument to be enough. The issue here is not so
much, as many critics have pointed out, that validation is separated from
originating contexts. Rather, an earlier criticism still stands – namely, that this
formal separation does not generate the possibility for new content. It only
makes explicit the implicit veracity of the speech act (Arnason, 1982: 228).
The explication exposes the universalistic potential of all claims against which
the ‘living’ veracity of old and new forms of life can be judged. Especially in
Habermas’s later work, a tension emerges between his allowing a conceptual
space to emerge for the creation of new social meanings in all of their hues,
from the most brutal to the most benign, and his reduction of this conceptual
space to quasi-transcendental formalistic criteria. From a more contextualist
vantage point, the issue is one of competing images and programmes of
modernity that are situated within longer-term contexts and orientated by
particular horizons.
The linkage between law and democracy and the formation of democratic
constitutional states can only be viewed as an achievement of modernity. Yet, it
is a contingent achievement, rather than the result of an a priori intersubjectivity
that combines language and normativity and develops as sociocultural evolution
through learning processes. No matter how sophisticated his formulation the
28 Tensions of modernity
evolutionary thrust of Habermas’s theory through learning processes restric-
tively thematises the existence of the human species to that of language users, a
thematisation that predetermines and sets limits to the historical direction of
human development and to changes in the ways humans and human societies
perceive and understand themselves. In Habermas’s work this evolutionism
means that the ‘higher stage’ – modernity – is trapped in a hermeneutical
circle orientated to a prior value of validation. Modernity, and indeed different
modernities, is judged by Habermas in terms of the increasing ability to argue
and test the case for truth statements or normative rightness, and to reach
agreements about these. There is thus an internal relation between argumenta-
tion and the lessons that can be learnt concerning this deliberative ability.
Habermas therefore views catastrophes such as the totalitarianisms of yesterday
and the fundamentalisms of today as pathological movements away from a
learning process, rather than as historical creations in their own right.
This reliance on learning processes becomes evident, for example, in
Habermas’s recent discussions concerning the heightened sensibility to religious
pluralism in contemporary (European) societies. Habermas thinks that inter-
religious encounters may be resolved through learning processes and the steps
that European states, as well as the European Union, are willing to take to
embrace or limit the plurality of religious practices. He admits that it remains
an open question whether the relation between faith and democracy can be
pursued through learning and argumentation alone (Habermas, 2008). Perhaps
it would be more accurate to suggest that this possibility depends on a perspec-
tive shared by both believers and non-believers that ultimately cannot be argued
either for or against, and is also unenforceable. But if this is the case, then the
force and the creation of this perspective must originate, not from language
and learning processes, but elsewhere. This leaves open the question that
learning and argumentation are grounded in imaginary horizons that precede
both. It is to the nature and creation of these imaginaries, in their ontological
and modern forms, that we now turn.

Contingent imaginaries of modernity

A critique of Habermas’s sociological discourse of modernity can begin from an
observation that modernity, like social worlds more generally, is indeterminate,
rather than the result of sociocultural learning processes. Apart from the tele-
ologically inspired hermeneutical entrapment there is also the problem of the
status and weight that Habermas attributes to learning processes themselves.
For there to be a learning process there needs to be a disposition to learn at
least something. My argument is that a pre- and/or non-linguistic and non-
cognitive dimension through which we can create social meaning orientates
this disposition. The learnt phenomenon of the political, like learning in general,
is a second-order process (Castoriadis, 1991).
Social phenomena are indeterminate and distinct world creations. This
indeterminacy and distinctiveness highlights their contingency. Following
From communicative modernity to modernities in tension 29
Castoriadis’s formulation, the creation of contingent social worlds can be termed
the creation of social imaginaries. Rather than concentrating on the activities of
linguistification, or phenomenological or interpretative worlding, Castoriadis
concentrates on the creation of societies.3 For Castoriadis, societies and their
histories are indeterminate creations, not ‘things’ that are perceived as real,
nor are they products of rational thinking or language games. Put differently,

reality, language, values, [norms], needs and labour in each society, specify,
in each case, in their particular mode of being, the organisation of the
world and the social world related to the social imaginary significations
instituted by the society in question.
(Castoriadis, 1987: 371)

Castoriadis’s notion of social imaginary emphasises the historically inde-

terminate creation of meaning, which is not reducible to language, symbols,
function or learning processes even if it leans and relies on these. Social imaginary
significations glue society together (Castoriadis, 1987: 142). Put differently, social
imaginary significations are forms of social meaning that humans create, and
through which they organise their world. They are meaning-constituted social
figurations through which we interconnect and interact in very specific ways.
The creation of specific social imaginary significations is no less the case for
modernity than for any other society or history. Modernity is a unique historical
creation, as are other societies and histories. The characteristic of uniqueness
does not mean that modernity is a singular social imaginary enclosed within
itself and identified with a fixed time and a fixed place, separated from other
times and places. Rather, indeterminacy means that modernity may not have
been created, and that different modernities can also be created that are distinct
in character, time and place.
These images of indeterminate and different modernities have been portrayed
under the term ‘multiple modernities’, although this formulation tends to
emphasise different geographical regions and histories of modernities. It also
emphasises their own interactions with their own equally unique civilisational
and longer historical contexts. The ‘multiple modernities’ literature tends to
emphasise the different experiences of modernity in regional terms – for
example, Japanese modernity, Indian modernity, Chinese modernity or Iranian
modernity. Against a backdrop of over-inflated claims concerning a globalised
‘modernity’ or a ‘European’ or ‘American’ civilization that is projected as a
globalised entity, this body of literature argues that specific and competing
modernities are created.4 The development of sensibility to non-Western horizons
and the critique of the West and its colonial past constitute the continual
creation, reinterpretation, reconstruction of different cultural programmes,
and thus the construction of multiple modernities. This has occurred on both
sides of the so-called ‘West-East’ divide, including ‘attempts by various groups
and movements to re-appropriate modernity and redefine the discourse of
modernity in their own terms’ (Eisenstadt, 2003: 517).
30 Tensions of modernity
Schmuel Eisenstadt goes onto argue that,

while the common starting point of many of these developments was

indeed the cultural program of modernity as it developed in the West,
more recent developments gave rise to a multiplicity of cultural and social
formations, which go far beyond the very homogenising aspects of the
original version. All these developments do indeed attest to a continual
development of multiple modernities, or the multiple interpretation of
modernity – and above all the de-Westernisation of the decoupling of
modernity from its ‘Western’ pattern, of depriving, as it were, the West from
[the] monopoly of modernity. It is in this broad context that European or
Western modernity or modernities have to be seen not as the only real
modernity but as one of multiple modernities.
(Eisenstadt, 2003: 517–518)

As indicated above, these multiple developments also entail that the historical
context cannot be separated from the way in which each modern social
imaginary is both created and viewed. There are unique civilisational backdrops,
encounters, conflicts and engagements against which different modernities
develop. In this way, credence is given to the specific characteristics of regional
and civilisational identities and geographies, and the way in which tensions
and conflicts are constitutive of these.
On a conceptual and more formal level, rather than only on the substantive
one, the notion of multiple modernities invites the articulation of the constituent
social imaginary significations through which modernity is being reconstructed
by the theorists who deploy this term.5 This articulation can be expressed
through a companion notion of modernities in tension. The concept of
modernities in tension places an emphasis not on the distinctiveness of its
particular regions, but rather on the constituent social imaginaries through
which a modernity can be identified. There is the development and crystal-
lisation of distinct social imaginary significations, each with its own long history,
self-understanding, and emotional, rather than merely rational, vocabularies.
But because these constituent dimensions are also indeterminate creations,
they stand in a disaggregated, rather than only differentiated, relation to one
another in a way that does not ‘add up’ or click together as a system. The
emphasis on indetermination and distinctive modern social imaginaries in
formal and substantive terms highlights a threefold combination of the specifi-
city of modern social imaginaries, the long histories of regions and cultures, and
conflicts at junctures of these forces. These combinations are historically
indeterminate and generate a social form that is tension-ridden, yet open.
As indicated above, there is a modern distinctiveness that underlies each
imaginary in that they are all imbued with a heightened sense of contingency
and openness (Eisenstadt, 2003, Heller, 1999). Conceptualising the contingency
and openness of social imaginaries challenges the assumption that the
world and people’s lives within it are fixed, and that there is a sense of time
From communicative modernity to modernities in tension 31
that is predetermined in terms of either cyclical or linear versions that com-
bine past, present and future in terms of a more or less uninterrupted continuity.
Modernity in each of its imaginaries disaggregates this sense of time. To put it
slightly differently, time is pluralised (Luhmann, 1995; Rundell, 2009).
Modernity is thus revolutionary in ways that do not equate it with the
usual political meaning of the term. It is context breaking in the way that, for
example, Rousseau deploys the love relation between St Preux and Julie in his
Julie, ou la Nouvelle Heloise. This is a love that is created by the lovers and
breaks with the past and paternalistic forms of power, opening onto a con-
tingent future (Rousseau, 1968). Marx would put it differently, yet with no
less passionate spirit, when he portrays modernity’s dynamism through his
famous phrase in his Communist Manifesto, ‘all that is solid melts into air’
(Marx, 1967). It is context breaking in the sense that a world can be built
anew and differently from pre-existing ones (Arendt, 1973). Contingency and
openness denote possibilities of freedom. This is what gives modernity its
revolutionary sense.
There are different meanings of freedom, and of contingency and openness,
and these different meanings become imbedded in the different modern social
imaginaries. As such, there are tensions and conflicts between these meanings.
Instead of a pathological impingement or colonisation of the lifeworld by the
system, as Habermas would have it, there is, in formal and not only substantive
terms, a competition between various social imaginaries. Specifically, the modern
social imaginary significations, with their own particular meanings of con-
tingency and openness, include the general and global monetarisation of
social life orientated by the market, industrialisation, expressivist aesthetics,
nation state formation, modern democratisation, and public spheres.
As I have discussed each modern imaginary elsewhere (Rundell, 1997, 2009),
I will briefly present each in a formal and ideal‒typical manner, keeping in
mind the ways in which these modernities have been created by social groups
and actors who create and interpret the horizons of openness and contingency,
and hence forms of social relatedness, in their own particular ways.
Money becomes the social imaginary signification that is created to denote
increasingly abstract exchanges between contingent strangers. If Simmel’s
Philosophy of Money rather than Marx’s Capital is taken as our starting
point, money constitutes and mediates the material conditions of capital, which
revolves around a dual process of the subsumption of labour under capital
and the extension of market driven economies, mediated by the money form
and the restless, ceaseless expansion of the horizon of needs.
It is more than this, however. As a social imaginary money is the means
through which modernity’s horizon of openness is created as limitlessness; there
is nothing that it apparently cannot touch, nowhere it cannot go. In addition,
money as a social imaginary signification enables us to create contingency as
a form of social connection that is purely abstract and has no social ties
except for the activity of exchange in the medium of calculation, irrespective
of whether one is a producer, a distributor or a consumer. Money, however, is
32 Tensions of modernity
not simply a value, a price, but a cultural form that has coherence as a
meaning that is also a social figuration that interlocks us in very specific ways.
As moderns, we become calculators, and not simply strategists, manipulating
the price of literally everything (Simmel, 1978).
The modern imaginary of work, or what I have also termed the ‘technical‒
industrial’ imaginary, emphasises function – of machines, signs and humans.
It turns the latter into functionaries, those who perform roles. The emphasis
on role and role performance heightens contingency and depersonalises and
denaturalises the image of what it means to be a human being. The world of
modern functionalised work becomes increasingly indifferent to prescriptive
characteristics. Both men and women become viewed simply as contingent role
performers, equally hireable and replaceable with other human role performers,
or with machines. Yet this functionalised meaning of contingency narrows the
meaning of modern openness. Working, as an activity, is narrowed to the
specialisation of tasks that are differentiated according to this specialisation.
This specialisation or mono-functionalisation is matched by the mono-
functionalisation of science, the creativity of which is narrowed to the application
of technical‒cognitive solutions to problems that are viewed in functionalised
terms only (Rundell, 2012b: 8–20).
Many of the conflicts around the modern imaginary of work involve issues
regarding the manifestation and consequences of functionalisation and speciali-
sation. Such conflicts contest, for example, the reduction of persons to roles and
functions and, as such, their replaceability on this basis. In addition, conflicts
also contest the regimes of technical management and micro-control that have
been put into place to control these roles and functions (Sennett, 2006).
The autonomy of art as a separate imaginary and practice, while not
unrelated to the development of specialised aesthetic techniques and techno-
logies and the formation of public spheres, became a basis through which
moderns could contest the traditional aesthetics of the sacred, as well as critique
other imaginaries of modernity in the context of forming their own aesthetic
codes and practices. Moderns who created and embraced aesthetic modernity
also created and embraced a new concept of culture, through which con-
tingency and openness could be interpreted. Contingency was interpreted as
experimentations in form and content that opened beyond themselves,
whether this took place in painting, music or poetry. In this context, openness
was interpreted from the vantage point of a source of creativity that was
located beyond the mundane world. Moderns interpreted aesthetics as a form
of transcendence, and this also meant that, as transcendence, aesthetics could
become a remedy for modernity’s ills in the form of art, love or even death.6
Suffering and aesthetics, rather than Eros and aesthetics, became a motif
through which artists could create a life that was open to transcendence,
contingent on and no longer anchored in schools of art, yet separate from the
mundane existences identified with money, work and the state. Artists made,
and were left to, their own contingent suffering (Goethe, 1989; Schiller, 1967;
Markus, 2011).
From communicative modernity to modernities in tension 33
If money is the social form through which we create social life in increasingly
abstract ways, work the form through which we create social life in functio-
nalised ones, and aesthetics a way of life of isolated suffering, then the nation
state is modernity’s most concrete and integrating one. It is, to use Benedict
Anderson’s term, modernity’s ‘imagined community’, tying together modernity’s
contingent strangers in a shared territory through commonly shared mechanisms
of identity and control, where civilisational backdrops matter the most and can
become a source for both cohesion and conflict. However, nation state integra-
tion is a two-edged sword. It provides a home, and yet the modern imaginary of
the nation state is created in such a way that constrains rather than promotes
openness, especially in the context of the contingency, not of markets, but of
population movements, of migration and settlement. The nation state became
the imaginary institution through which both the intensive and extensive
control of a territory was created and sustained over time. New instruments
of control were created from the depersonalisation of law and bureaucracy,
the creation of standing armies and diplomacy, passports and the category of
national‒juridical citizenship. The social imaginary of the organisation of the
modern state enhances entitlement through this category, while simultaneously
limiting contingency and openness.
In the context of multiple modernities, one can talk about specifically
national, and therefore selective, developments and institutional patterns that
are part of the more general story regarding the formation of nation states.
Yet, the core of the imaginary of the nation state, even in substantive or
‘multiple’ contexts, revolves around the control of control, that is, not simply
the developments of instruments of nation-state control – administrative appa-
ratuses, diplomacy, armies, territory, identity and so on – but the control of these
instruments (Rundell, 2009: 46–47). From the perspective of the nation state,
contingency is stabilised around the control of the nation’s control dimensions.
Openness is orientated to and by international contexts, but, paradoxically, is
stabilised around the control of processes and boundaries, even if these pro-
cesses shift to a higher level of abstraction, for example in the case of the
European Union.7
The paradox of openness and closure can also result in the creation of
absolute outsiders, which can lead to another version of the nation state – a
barbarous one. Jacobinism, totalitarianism and fundamentalism are the most
significant examples of modern barbarous creations. Totalitarianism and
fundamentalism are experiments in de-differentiation and enforced reductions
of contingency, openness and complexity, experiments that are created from the
perspective of the nation state imaginary. The result of the totalitarian and
fundamentalist options is the bounded closure of the state and the construction
and prioritisation of a singular identity through which there can emerge the
identification or marking of contingent strangers as absolute outsiders – that is,
as those who are outside the boundaries of both territory and identity.8
The creation of the social imaginary of the nation state and its imperialising
mission did not, however, go uncontested by the contingent strangers who
34 Tensions of modernity
found themselves within its boundaries and subject to its power-saturated and
administrative scope. People created other versions of rulership in which
sovereignty of the nation lay in its people. It became articulated in the claim
for political citizenship that coexisted alongside the national‒juridical one.
Citizenships were created in which all issues, from those addressing the state,
to those of markets, work and domestic life could be raised and fought over.
Citizenship became a point of condensation and contestation, rather than one
that internally linked norm and law, in the way that Habermas supposes.9
However, the creation of citizenships did not exhaust the way democracy
was created and interpreted. As Habermas’s work indicates, politics was also
created in a manner of sociability, one that minimises the use and threat of
violence in its mobilisation of resources of power.10 The creation of demo-
cratic forms in both formal and multiple contexts emphasises contingency
and openness and limitation. This limitation is created in the form not only of
constitution making that limits state violence, protects negative freedoms, and
codifies democratic norms, but also of a self-limitation in the form of non-
violent conduct towards others with whom one is engaged with in politics.
These forms of limitation and self-limitation are dispositions, part of the open
and contingent nature of the modern political imaginary, and enable reflexive
breakthroughs to be created, even if the outcome of these cannot be assured.
However, the political imaginary is often under-interpreted if it is equated
only with democracy and as a category of a right of participation in power and
the organisation of society. The political imaginary also includes the formation
of public spheres. Although the dimension of the public is central to Habermas’s
own reconstruction, in his later work the public sphere is folded into the
process of political communication, and as such becomes a conduit for these
communicative processes. Strictly speaking, though, the processes of democ-
ratisation and the creation of public spheres are not coterminus, either con-
ceptually or historically. If democracy is about limitation and self-limitation,
then the public sphere concerns an open limitlessness, not in a moneyed form,
but in an expressivist one. After the invention of the printing press at the end
of the fifteenth century, publishing houses flourished that produced books,
encyclopaedias, newspapers and journals. Literary publics of writers, publishers
and readers thus emerged.11 The spoken word too found new venues and
spaces. Coffee houses and salons emerged where men, and later also women,
met to discuss the political affairs of the day as well as intellectual matters
that had often been the preserve of the universities, which had already developed
a space for reflexive thinking, no matter how specialised. Not only argument,
but also jokes, satire and other comedic forms developed that became part of
the public sphere, and which threw ‘the ordinary business’ of everyday life as
well as politics into relief (Heller, 2011: 81–94).
Aesthetic public spheres also emerged, especially in the forms of theatres,
museums, art galleries and concert houses. These became ‘sacred‒secular’
spaces of reflection and contemplation where one could, for a brief moment,
establish one’s own unique relation with an artwork and oneself without
From communicative modernity to modernities in tension 35
purpose or intent (Heller, 2011: 47–64). In these particular publics – which
now encompass private space, and irrespective of which country one resides
in – one need not be a specialist, aesthetic creator, or consumer, nor someone
engaged in statecraft or someone who argues and engages politically. One is
simply someone who in a contingent way establishes an involved, rather than
distanced or indifferent, relation to a specific object or experience. The public
sphere in all of its forms became, and continues to be, a rallying point for
claims by all social actors not simply for argument, but for freedom of
expression and the coexistence of these freedoms.
Modernity, then, can be viewed as an umbrella concept under which quite
different imaginaries are gathered, including critical tendencies, conflicts and
social movements, all of which can also be seen against specific cultural or
civilisational backdrops (Rundell, 2009: 19–40). The eighteenth century
cannot be viewed as the century that gave birth to modernity, and nor can
Europe be viewed as the only site for its development. In addition, each of the
modern social imaginaries of money, machine- or sign-driven technologies,
expressive aesthetics, nation-state organisation, democracy and public spheres,
is constituted by its own collective actors, who, to begin with, are contingent
strangers to one another, brought together by these contexts. Each of these
modern social imaginaries of contingency and openness will have its own
countermovements that may contest the nature of money, labour and industry,
the identity and organisational imperatives of the modern state, the nature of
democracy and public spheres, and the nature of aesthetic creativity and
its practices and subjectivity. This makes modernity conflict-ridden and
perspectivistic – a reference point fills its content, and this reference point can
shift according to the ‘modernity’ one is talking about. From the vantage
point of multiple modernities or modernities in tension no one imaginary can
claim the mantle of modernity tout court. No one imaginary can claim to
push us to a glorious future or to save us. If it does, it is usually with inglor-
ious consequences. There are modernities ‒ each has its own dynamism and
paradoxes ‒ and there are tensions between these modernities. In other words,
modernity does not add up. It is not a totality, yet we still live within and
constitute its orbits, wherever we may live.

Tensions, dissonance and publics

These social imaginaries are not self-enclosed or completely autological systems
in the sense that Niklas Luhmann, for example, constructs his own systems
theory, notwithstanding his distinction between system and environment
(Luhmann, 1995). They are immune to neither influence nor interpenetration.
Tensions amount to the relationality and often the non-translatability between
the imaginaries themselves. Notwithstanding this issue of non-translatability
there is a blurring of boundaries between the imaginaries, which potentially
informs and transforms each of them. They are not as ‘buffered’ or as separate
as Taylor, for one, suggests (Taylor, 2007). They are ‘porous’ in that they can
36 Tensions of modernity
be more or less open to transformation, where openness does not necessarily
result in, or become identical with, a de-differentiated annihilation of distinc-
tions, or the subsumption and control of all of the imaginaries by one of them, as
has been historically the case for the imaginary of the state in its totalitarian
form. Even the modern imaginary of monetarisation can never be as rapacious
or omnivorous as its totalising champions and critics suggest. One particular
imaginary cannot be viewed as coextensive with modernity or have attributed
to it a primary cause. There are only irreducible and irresolvable tensions
between the imaginaries. The result is paradoxical: while there may be claims
for homogeneity and unity, there is only tension, conflict and dissonance.
Because modernity is multiple, plural and heterodox (Eisenstadt, 2003), it is
filled by the questions and perspectives of each interlocutor, of each interpreter
who creates his or her modernity. It all looks quite different depending on the
position from which one is looking and the social imaginary one is orientated
to or imbedded in. One can be a market-orientated capitalist whose world is
constituted through money, a functionalist and role-performer, an aesthetician,
an étatist, a democrat or an actor in the public sphere. One can give monetary‒
market-based, functional‒technical, aesthetic, state-centred, or democratic‒
public responses to modern crises, irrespective of where these crises originate.
Each position generates its own perspective, which is also the standpoint that
is valued and, thus, has evaluative reach. We usually articulate some, but not
all, of these perspectives.
Nonetheless, the recognition and acknowledgement of irresolvability is
itself a value position orientated by one of modernity’s social imaginaries.
Irresolvability is the most open dimension of modernity’s political imaginary,
which need not be articulated as a consensus, but as dissonance. Dissonance
assumes the multiple existences of independent voices. It is a reflexive discordance
in which the other coexists in the same space, without interference and with
its own distinct and different voice. This space is constituted by the cultural
horizons of contingency and openness, which, in this context, are the refer-
ence points for mutual coexistence and autonomy among contingent strangers
(Seel, 2004: 267;, cf. Chapter 2, this volume).
The public sphere remains a cultural model for this affirmative version of
modernity, once it is freed from a preoccupation with deliberative democracy,
and reoriented not to argumentation alone, but to spaces of openness and
reflexive and contemplative coexistence that are not incorporated into the
vicissitudes of power, including its democratic version. In terms of multiple
modernities, this emphasis on the public sphere makes cities – whether western
or non-western ones – central. In contrast to Habermas, this central positioning
does not occur from the vantage point of the evolution of modernity, but from
that of the creation and articulation of cultural models of autonomy and
mutuality in the context of the modern horizons of contingency and openness.
The cultural cosmopolitanism of cities is, from this vantage point, more sig-
nificant than the modernities of functionalisation and digitalisation, nation-
building and interstate formation, or market-based monetarisation in either
From communicative modernity to modernities in tension 37
western or non-western contexts. As Max Weber remarks in a different context,
‘Stadtluft macht frei or’ [city air makes one free] (Weber, 1978a: 1239).
Openness becomes synonymous with an expressivist notion of freedom, which
is not reducible to either the aesthetic imaginary or the democratic one. In its
form as public sphere, more so than any of the other modern imaginaries, the
social imaginary of the political creates this possibility of coexistences. It is
this that presents the possibility for a pluralisation and alteration of horizons
of self-creation, action and understanding in the context of others.

1 I would like to thank Danielle Petherbridge and Tom Bailey for their comments on
earlier drafts of this paper.
2 In this context, Habermas also responded to the economism and the metaphysics
of the paradigms of labour and production that are embedded in Marx’s work.
3 The term imaginary is thus used differently from the way Charles Taylor deploys it
(Taylor, 2007: 173).
4 It is here that some critics of Habermas often concentrate their efforts, regarding
either the social evolution of the political form of modernity that he assumes or his
circumscribed version of modern state formation, which downplays its role as a
social imaginary that constructs and coordinates versions of modernity, including
the totalitarian option. See Arnason, 1993, 1996, 2002a, 2002b; Eisenstadt, 2003;
Arjomand, 2004, 2005. Arnason introduces the notion of modernity as a field of
tensions in his commentary on Habermas’s work in Arnason, 1991.
5 Eisenstadt’s own conceptualisation of multiple modernities, for example, con-
centrates on the distinction and relation between politics and the state. For him,
politics concerns ideological and institutional arrangements and elite formations,
while he analyses the modern state from the vantage point of its territorialisation
in the context of interstate relations, even when these states are modern empires. In
other words, for Eisenstadt, bounded territoriality is the defining issue (Eisenstadt,
2003: 493–571). The works of Niklas Luhmann and Agnes Heller are also of note.
In Luhmann’s neo-systems theory, systems are products of sociocultural evolution
and define themselves in an autological relation with an environment, and hence
develop semantic codes as forms of distinction and observation. For Luhmann – as
for Habermas, with whom Luhmann was a dialogic partner – modernity is increasingly
differentiating through the specialisation of semantic codes of functions (Luhmann,
1995). In principle, modernity is almost an infinitely internally differentiating
system. For Heller, modernity is a contingent historical formation, the coalescence
of three particular ‘logics’ or social imaginaries that do not add up to a totality. As she
spells out in Heller, 1999 and 2011, for her there are three modern imaginaries –
namely, technology, the functional allocation of social positions, and political power.
Political power comprises both the institutions of freedom and the institutions of
government, including those of authority, coercion and the invention of
6 The current interest in religion sits at the intersection of Romantic, civilisational
and cultural impulses, which reintroduces the question of the boundary of the
human into a post-metaphysical environment from the vantage point of a posited
realm of transcendence that is distinct from the human one. See, for example,
Taylor, 2007.
7 The contemporary assessment, that we are now in a ‘post-national constellation’,
which Habermas also articulates, minimises the active role that nation states have
38 Tensions of modernity
in both pursuing their interests and underwriting the processes of internationalisation
and globalisation that have occurred, and responding to these. What is often
overlooked, however, is a transformative capacity that nation states may have in
adapting to external shocks and pressures by invoking new forms of governance
and policy formation (Weiss, 1998). Moreover, the strong version of the globalisation
thesis also underestimates the role of nation states in forming types of ‘governed
interdependence’ (Weiss, 1998: 38–39). Governed interdependency is not simply
the internationalisation of governance in the form of institutions such as the
United Nations, the European Union or international treaties and conventions.
The nation state is assumed to be the basic ‘social’ unit, and is required to be a
functioning one of juridical authority and legitimacy if these bodies, treaties and
conventions are to be at all meaningful.
8 Robespierre and Lenin remain the originators of this aspect of modernity, and it is
one that has travelled and continues to travel widely, irrespective of the ‘languages’
in which it is spoken. Lenin invents the technical machinery of totalitarianism,
although Carl Schmitt contributes to this current in his negative assessment of
modernity (which is absent in Lenin’s work) in terms of his distinction between
friend and enemy. The current terrorisms are de facto civil wars that originate from
within the terrorists’ nations of origin and are projected onto the world stage. They
are not the result of inter-civilisational conflicts. Rather, they are highly specific
responses that take their model as the imaginary of the nation state, and add to it
an annihilationist aesthetics of redemptive closure orientated to extinguishing the
paradoxes of openness and contingency.
9 See Chapter 8, this volume.
10 The creation of the democratic imaginary of modernity not only includes the
American and French revolutions, but also the Renaissance city states, the Swiss
and the Dutch republics, and the 1989 ‘anti-totalitarian revolutions’ (Arendt, 1973;
Morin, 1992; Collins, 1999). And as we saw recently in 2011 in the Middle East
and Arabian Peninsula, democratic imaginaries are still in the making and it is an
open question what form, if any, they will take. While all of the attention has been
on Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Bahrain and Yemen, Oman is an interesting case here.
In much of the published research literature, Oman is viewed as a society that has
recently been modernised after emerging from a period of isolation during the
early part of the twentieth century. In a more nuanced way it has been conducting
its own democratic experiments within the horizons of the democratic imaginary,
Ibadism and an enlightened monarchy within the context of its own tensions of
modernity. Oman was a trading empire centred in the cities of Muscat, Zanzibar
and Makran that gave it a disposition to openness. See also Chapter 10, this volume.
See also Al-Haj, 1996; Jones and Ridout, 2005; Peterson, 2005; Ghubash, 2006.
11 Taking Habermas’s earlier Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere as a
point of reference rather than either The Theory of Communicative Action or
Between Facts and Norms, the situation is more differentiated and differentiating
than a homology between democracy and the public sphere might suggest.
2 Modernity, contingency, dissonance
Luhmann contra Adorno, Adorno contra

In metaphorical terms, modernity can be viewed as a New World through
which understandings of what it means to be modern can be continually
rethought in both temporal and spatial terms. The temporal horizon of
modernity can shift from one usually conceptualised in terms of an originary
moment emerging in the eighteenth century, which is supplanted by a post-
modern condition in the late twentieth century, to a longer-term one begin-
ning in the fifteenth century that is fractured by a series of variegated
distinctions, or a plurality of temporal horizons and possibilities (pasts, pre-
sents and futures). The spatial horizon also shifts from a modernity conceived
as a social form with a single defining centre (usually Western Europe) to one
that has multiple centres and multiple geographical locations. The spatial
dimension, though, not only refers to multiple centres and geographies, but
also to the multiple spaces in which modern subjects cohabit – spaces that
they create but which also constrain them. The tension between the creation
of spaces and the constraints that they impose generates a dissonance that
emits its own sounds of contingency and possibility.
It is in this sense of a change of paradigm in which multiple modernities
are conceptualised in terms of contingency and possibility that David Roberts
writes ‘from a distance’ (Roberts, 1991: 3), and brings a New World perspective
to Old World problems. For him, Adorno is representative of an Old World
view of modernity. The theoretical motivation for Roberts’s critique of Adorno’s
theory of the dialectic of the Enlightenment originates in Luhmann’s neo-
system’s theoretical reconstruction of the historiography of modernity, which
posits a series of New Worlds.
The inspiration for this chapter comes from Roberts’s Art and Enlightenment
Aesthetic Theory after Adorno, and the way he looks anew at the temporal
and spatial horizons of modernity. However, the chapter also signals a different
interpretative possibility. Its aim is not to follow the path laid down by
Roberts’s own analysis of the relation between the Enlightenment and its
aesthetically inspired critique. Rather, the aim is to read Adorno and Luhmann
against one another. Here Adorno need not be read as the critic of modernity’s
40 Tensions of modernity
totality read as a history of technical‒rational progress qua reification and
alienation, that is, as a theorist of negative dialectics. One can read Adorno
after Luhmann, as a theorist of open-ended possibilities that cannot be
resolved, that is, as a theorist of contingency and dissonance (Seel, 2004).
Drawing on Luhmann’s notions of differentiation and autopoiesis and Adorno’s
philosophy of music, this reading will concentrate more on an image of
modernity in spatial terms and less on its historical development and temporal

Luhmann views modernity as a social form that is differentiated according to
increasingly functional, or more specifically autopoietic criteria. In his later
work, especially in his Social Systems, Luhmann argues that each differentiated
site develops its own form of communication or semantic code to solve the
problem of inter-systemic and interpersonal communication. The formation
of autopoietic systems is the result of a dynamic of selection, variation and
stabilisation – the activity of ‘coding’ itself. Luhmann builds two presuppositions
into the dynamic activity of autopoiesis. The first presupposition concerns the
fact of either affirming or negating social life. The ‘linguistic fact’ of either ‘yes’
or ‘no’ makes evolutionary variation or novelty possible. In other words, by
beginning with the activity of difference itself, Luhmann’s work is a systematic
assault against philosophies of metaphysical unity and theories of social unity,
integration and totality. This ‘linguistic’ aspect, second, is complemented by
the distinction between system and environment (Luhmann, 1995).
For Luhmann, there is inseparability between these two presuppositions,
that is, between coding and the distinction between system and environment.
From the side of a system, ‘coding’ is the means through which a system
interacts and selects from an environment in selective and sophisticated ways;
from the side of the environment, this coding is never exhausted, never totally
selected – there is always an excess of selectable ‘material’ which cannot be
coded and remains part of the system’s environment. This means that selection
comes from a position of making a boundary from the vantage point of the
particular system. This is what makes a system autopoietic. Luhmann argues
in his neo-systems social theory that the image of function resides, not in
tasking, but in selection and comparison. As Luhmann himself states ‘a
function is nothing other than the focus for comparison. It marks a problem
(one speaks of ‘a reference problem’) in such a way that multiple solutions
can be compared and that the problem remains open for further selections
and substitutions’ (Luhmann, 2000: 138).
In Luhmann’s view, this combination of autopoiesis and the system’s
interaction with its environment makes systems contingent as well as provides
the basis for a second-order selection – from the side of the system – which
leads to specialisation, differentiation and further self-referentiality. From this
perspective modernity is neither a ‘society’ nor an aggregate of sub-systems.
Modernity, contingency, dissonance 41
Rather, for Luhmann, modernity is characterised by the development of
increasingly autopoietic systems or New Worlds that are increasingly differ-
entiated from one another, each with its own form of self-referential code. Hence,
for him and against classical social theory from Marx to Parsons, modern
societies are not characterised by the emergence of a modern centre of func-
tionally orientated and coordinating social power or social values, but rather
by a series of differentiated sites defined by the specificity of self-referentially
produced social codes or media. In this way, modern social systems cannot be
totalised and stand in an uncoordinated relation to one another in terms of the
differentiation of functions, powers and values or semantic codes. Moreover,
the functionality of the semantic codes entails that each particular system
becomes increasingly indifferent to criteria that are either non-functionally
orientated, or lie outside the boundary of that system (Luhmann, 1995).
There are two issues that emerge from Luhmann’s analysis of modern
societies. On the one hand, Luhmann’s analysis of modernity yields permanent
results, results that Roberts also draws on in Art and Enlightenment. For both
Luhmann and Roberts, the attempt to construct a totalistic image of modernity
does not allow for the way differentiation simplifies increasing complexity and
the formation of discrete systems. For example, this is certainly the case with
modern aesthetics in which, according to Luhmann, ‘the function of art … is
to reproduce the difference of art’ (Luhmann, 2000: 145). Furthermore he
goes on to argue that this ‘independently developed sense of form in art leads
to gains in autonomy, especially when art develops its own dynamics and
begins to react to itself ’ (Luhmann, 2000: 144). This also entails that the his-
torically supporting function of objects defined in religious, political or in terms
of social rank diminishes and is eventually cast off as inessential (Luhmann,
2000: 144).
However, the simplification of complexity entails more than art becoming
its own self-referential system – the self-referentiality itself involves the devel-
opment of a cultural semantics that pertain to art itself, and is different from
the other cultural semantics of other modernities. These cultural semantics of
art convey the function of art. As Luhmann goes onto state, they

make the world appear within the world – with an eye toward the
ambivalent situation that every time something is made available for
observation something else withdraws that, in other words, the activity of
distinguishing and indicating that goes on in the world conceals the
world. It goes without saying that striving for completeness or restricting
oneself to the essential would be absurd. Yet a work of art is capable of
symbolising the re-entry of the world [form] into the world because it
appears – just like the world – incapable of emendation.
(Luhmann, 2000: 149)

The specific procedures and principles that art develops are novelty, style-
consciousness and astonishment, and hence an intensification and pluralisation
42 Tensions of modernity
of all forms of art. The result of this internal or self-referential development,
as both Luhmann and Roberts make clear, is that the attempt to reduce
modern aesthetics and its production, distribution and consumption to simply
semantic codes of the market and commercialised mass production and taste,
or a formulaic structure based in a mathematical rationality (for example in
the twelve-tone scale as well as popular music, if we were to follow Adorno’s
lead here), circumvents a more complex set of conditions that belong to the
internally differentiating constitution of modernity itself (Luhmann, 2000:
141; Roberts, 1991, 1997).
On the other hand, Luhmann’s analysis of the nature of the production of
works of art – or what is, essentially, any form of meaning – is folded into a
neo-systems theory of codification, which might be termed, following his
intersection with cybernetics, combinatory or recursive creativity – to which he
adds an element of surprise. Luhmann’s combinatory creativity is the selection
of signs or codes taken from a range of neither infinite nor unknowable possibi-
lities (Luhmann, 1987: 112, 1995: 134–136). Selection itself presupposes
codification plus something in addition that is enigmatic. For Luhmann, the
enigmatic dimension belongs only to the choice and not to the unknowable
quality of the system’s environment. The criteria of the infinite and the
unknowable, as well as contingency itself, for Luhmann, belong to the socio-
cultural evolution of the particular system and its capacity to mark a boundary
between itself and its environment.

Alongside Adorno’s negative critique of the instrumental rationalisation of
western modernity there is a more nuanced one that can be brought into
contact with the pluralised open-endedness of Luhmann’s own vision of
modernity. This is Adorno’s image of critique as dissonance, which as he states
‘arose as the expression of tension, contradiction and pain’ (Adorno, 1973: 86).
To be sure, Adorno posits an internal relation between his critique of an
imputed totality of the West and the image of dissonance through which critique
is kept alive. Fehér, in agreement with Roberts, has called this position
‘Adorno’s philosophy of musical reification’ (Fehér, 1991: 341). And yet, these
two aspects can be separated in order to posit another Adorno who evokes
dissonance without the need for either resolution or redemption, but with the
need for the memory of freedom, without which pain would simply be an
empty state (Pensky, 2004: 227–258). It is here that Adorno’s writings on
music, which Roberts and Bowie remind us should be read philosophically –
become the pertinent and rich resource for this aspect of his critical theory
(Roberts, 1991; Bowie, 1999: 1–23; Adorno, 2002: 135–161).
Adorno’s critical theory of dissonance is a search for the memory of free-
dom, where freedom, on one level, is a uniqueness that is constantly and
continuously delimited by the search for form and structure (Adorno, 1973:
71, 97). As Roberts and Jay note, contemporary post-classical western music
Modernity, contingency, dissonance 43
is representative, for Adorno, of the positivisation or technical mastery of
style, of which Schoenberg’s twelve-tone scale – as much as philosophy in
general – is the penultimate example, where composition – read creativity – is
brought ‘to a standstill’ (Adorno, 1973: 102; Roberts, 1991: 15; Jay, 1984:
111–160). As Adorno remarks,

there is little hope for the rescue of the theme from the domination of the
row. It is the objective program of twelve-tone composition to construct
that which is new – all contours within the form – as a second level upon the
row-like pre-formation of the material. But it is precisely here that it fails:
the introduction of the new into twelve-tone construction is coincidental,
arbitrary, and where it counts most, decisively antagonistic. Twelve-tone
technique does not permit a choice. Either it retains its formal immanence
or new elements are meaninglessly imposed upon it.
(Adorno, 1973: 103; 69–70)

For Adorno, Schoenberg’s music in its twelve-tone form is formal, rule-

orientated, rigid, flat, colourless and grey, like the instrumentally rule-
dominated bureaucratic structure so vehemently portrayed in the Dialectic of
Enlightenment (Horkheimer and Adorno, 1972.
Yet, in the denial of creative expression and in the imposition of technical
mastery in its formal power, an active memorialisation of freedom as uniqueness
occurs. This uniqueness exists, for Adorno, as a suppressed quarrel between
‘alienated’ objectivity and limited subjectivity that remains unsettled and
unsettling (Adorno, 1973: 104). In other words, for Adorno, freedom even as
memory has not been annihilated nor dissipated altogether. Rather, freedom
as uniqueness survives, or better, is heard as a distant echo of the concept of
‘Einfall’ or ‘inspiration’. For Adorno, ‘Einfall’ is ‘a moment in the dialectical
process manifest in musical form’. As he goes on to say, and it is worth
quoting him at some length here,

this moment marks the irreducibly subjective element in this process and,
by means of its inexplicability, further designates this aspect of music as
its essence, while working out represents the process of objectivity and the
process of becoming, which to be sure, contains the subjective moment as
a driving force. On the other hand, as essence, ‘Einfall’ is also possessed
of objectivity. Since Romanticism music has been based upon conflict and
synthesis of these moments. It appears, however, that they resist unification
just as strongly as the bourgeois concept of the individual stands in per-
ennial contrast to the totality of the social process. The inconsistency
between the theme and what happens to it reflects such social irreconcil-
ability. Nevertheless, composition must keep a firm grasp on the ‘Einfall’
if the subjective moment is not to be lost. This would make the composition
a parable of fatal integration. If Beethoven’s genius was able to manage
without this ‘Einfall’, which in his day had been developed to an
44 Tensions of modernity
incomparable degree by the masters of early Romanticism, Schoenberg,
on the other hand, adhered to the ‘Einfall’ – the thematic plasticity – in
cases where this had long lost the qualities that would permit its unification
with formal structure. In such instances Schoenberg undertook formal
construction from the perspective of this worn-out contradiction instead
of striving for a tasteful reconciliation.
(Adorno, 1973: 74 n. 31)

Adorno’s remarks on Einfall represent the other side of his critical impetus apart
from his critique of the Enlightenment. In an effort not to fold this concept back
into a Romanticism of which he is profoundly critical and which he equates
with subjectivism, Adorno invokes another image of freedom that is expressed
‘methodologically’, so to speak, as an immanent critique. This critique reveals
the contradictions and imperfections that stand in the relation between order
or symmetry and disorder or asymmetry, a relation that creates a dissonance
that can neither be concluded nor reconciled (Adorno, 1973: 27–28, 65).
However, as Adorno points out, twelve-tone technique is unsuited to the
responsibility of dissonance and the polyphony which requires it; rather what
occurs is that the multiple voices stand either as manufactured, produced
sounds that emanate from the technique itself, or as completely independent
and thus alien entities without relation to one another. To put it differently, in
the context of twelve-tone technique, the multiple, dissonant voices stand in
isolation to one another without recourse to a reference point, even one that
pertains to the musical form itself (Adorno, 1973: 92–93).
Rather, Adorno points to Bach’s compositions, in particular, where, even in
the context of the harmonic logic of the thorough bass chorale, a relation
existed between polyphonic dissonance and an external reference, even if it is
one that, for him, is a reified totality. In other words, a relation exists between
the unique and forms that give it context, but nonetheless constrain it. As
Adorno argues in The Philosophy of Modern Music,

the structure must be so conceived that the relationship of the voices to

each other determines the progression of the entire composition, and
ultimately its form. It is the skilful manipulation of such relationships,
and not the fact that he wrote good counterpoint in the traditional sense of
the word, that constitutes Bach’s true superiority in the realm of polyphonic
music. It is not the linear aspect, but rather its integration into the totality
of harmony and form.
(Adorno, 1973: 94)

But it is more than simply a matter of integration here. For Adorno, Bach’s
work is illustrative of the attempt to work with the paradox of harmonic
composition that organised itself ‘polyphonically through the simultaneity of
independent voices’ (Adorno, 1981: 138). In this case, the musical form itself,
rather than a pre-modern sacralised one, functions as the metaphor for a
Modernity, contingency, dissonance 45
reference point apart from that which is derived from the image of reified
totality. It can function as a metaphor for a reference point in which the law
of its own form, or its autonomisation sets loose a dynamic of experimentation
and adventure in which polyphony is constitutive and gives rise to dissonance
that is neither decorative nor dysfunctional (Adorno, 1981: 143). As Adorno

[Bach’s] music strove to achieve the indifference of the extremes towards

each other more radically than any other until that of the late Beethoven.
Bach as the most advanced master of the basso continuo, at the same time
renounced his obedience, as antiquated polyphonist, to the trend of the
times, a trend he himself had shaped, in order to reach its innermost
truth, the emancipation of the subject to objectivity in a coherent whole
of which subjectivity itself was the origin. Down to the subtlest structural
details it is always a question of the undiminished coincidence of the
harmonic-functional and the contrapuntal dimension. The distant past is
entrusted with the utopia of the musical subject-object; anachronism
becomes a harbinger of things to come.
(Adorno, 1981: 142)

It is here, too, for Adorno, that the memory of freedom survives, or more
properly re-announces itself time and again. Bach’s counterpoint, especially
that which constitutes his Art of Fugue, reaches back to an ‘archaic’ form of the
late Renaissance or early baroque, a period that situates modernity prior to the
eighteenth century Enlightenment and its Romantic countercurrent. For
Adorno, Bach’s innermost truth is that the modern voice of humanity survives
while being stifled simultaneously at the moment of its birth by purposive
And yet, for Adorno, Bach’s work speculatively transcends this suppression.
It is precisely here that the critical intent of Adorno’s critique can, itself, be
maintained in the context of Luhmann’s more open-ended image of modernity.
In Adorno’s view, it is only at the moment of the disappearance of the subject
due to its reification, that its appearance becomes necessary by not looking
away, by not being distracted from ‘true horrors’. For him, a critical theory
must remain dissonant rather than vigilant in its act of memorialisation
(Adorno, 1981: 33). Dissonance, though, is not simply an act of memory; it is
also an act of imaginative recreation. Luhmann’s work is instructive because
freedom is not simply a memory, but remains a possibility. In Luhmann’s
terms, rather than Adorno’s, there are two concepts of freedom here – one
which belongs to the open-ended and contingent nature of modernity itself,
and another that belongs to the notion of surprise, that is, to a creative
selection, which is contingent and forces a system to remain open.
However, as we have seen, Luhmann’s open-ended image of freedom is
simultaneously one of recursive creativity, which belongs to the relation
between the system and its environment. Luhmann’s disdain for critical theory
46 Tensions of modernity
entails that this is all there is to freedom – a selection from, in principle,
unknown or unknowable sources. It is here that Adorno’s notion of polyphonic
dissonance is illuminating. Although Adorno’s notion of dissonance can point
to an incomplete or unfinished theory of creativity, the horizons of which lie
beyond both his work as well as that of Luhmann’s, nonetheless it introduces
a critical theory of possible autonomy, where autonomy is uniqueness both on
the sides of subjectivity and objectivity and in the context of their dissonant
interaction. Freedom, then, is always a surprise, not in the sense that it exists,
but rather in the sense of something that is created in an unplanned and
uncontrollable way, and which exists in a dissonantly contingent space.
In this context, Adorno could also be termed a ‘contrapuntal’ critical theorist.
To put it more adequately, for Adorno, counterpoint and the polyphonic dis-
sonances that it frees, signifies the permanency of coexistences. Conventional
harmonic‒homophonic logic defined ‘the other voices completely in terms of
their relationship to the melodic leading voice’ (Adorno, 1973: 90). By contrast,
and notwithstanding his otherwise sharp critique, Adorno argues in a way that
connects Schoenberg with Bach, that in twelve-tone technique ‘all simulta-
neous sounds are equally independent … [it] taught the composer to design
several independent voices simultaneously and to organise them in a unity
without reliance upon harmonic logic’ (Adorno, 1973: 90–91). Contrapuntal
polyphony brings to the fore the problematic of the coexistence of independent
uniquenesses set within a frame of relational form that is held open.
Moreover, and as the above remarks on Adorno’s interpretation of Bach,
especially, imply, this image of dissonant openness relies on the background
evaluative horizon of freedom that is internal to Adorno’s critical theory. In
the light of this current discussion, this evaluative horizon can also be termed
an ethics and not only an ontology of reflexive polyphonic dissonance. Dis-
sonance is not formulated as Streit, but as a reflexive discordance in which
the other coexists in the same space and without interference (Seel, 2004:
268). This space is also constituted and bounded by a culturally imbedded
self-understanding – a social imaginary signification (Castoriadis) – which
functions as the abstract reference point where mutual coexistence assumes
Furthermore, this multiple voicing is not derived from mimesis, but from
creation ex nihilo in the context of a shared and mutually understood horizon.
(Musical) sociability is held open through a combination of creativity and
coexistence. Dissonant, polyphonic freedom is a condition that emerges ‘from
the experience of a freedom of being for others and for the Other that is lived
through for its own sake. The subjects of these experiences become familiar
with situations that can give to their wider conduct a normative direction. These
situations have an internal value in that something of value is experienced within
them – the possibility of encountering one another in spontaneous awareness’,
which is simultaneously always a surprise (Seel, 2004: 267).
Adorno’s contrapuntal philosophy qua socially orientated critical theory
points less to a philosophy of history, where the history of humankind is ‘the
Modernity, contingency, dissonance 47
history of the slingshot to the atomic bomb’, and more to a dissonant coexistence
of forms of freedom that cannot be formularised, and forms of order or power
that cannot be fully totalised. This is a particular image of a particular spatial
modernity where this modern space is constituted in terms of autonomous
selves, which becomes the abstract reference point. Moreover, as Luhmann’s
work suggests, this is distinct from other modern spaces or New Worlds, for
example ones constituted and mediated by the abstract reference points of
money or the nation. However, in the light of this particular reading of Adorno’s
work it can be suggested that a dissonance exists between these New Worlds,
rather than in Luhmann’s terms an autological ‘relation’ between system and
environment that privileges the image of autonomy as self-reference.
However, it is precisely here that Adorno’s philosophy of music reaches a
limit imposed by his negative philosophy, and where the musicology cannot
function as a homology for society. Rather, if read as a critical social theory,
Adorno’s insights regarding the sociality of contrapuntal polyphony and dis-
sonance have to be developed outside the framework of his analysis of western
music, as well as the thesis of alienated totality that stands behind it.
3 Imagining cities, others:
Strangers, contingency and fear

The city is often portrayed as a beacon of refuge from the conditions of servitude,
and thus a social space that represents freedom and cosmopolitanism – the
birthplace of both positive freedoms and the practices of political autonomy,
as well as the development of cultures of hospitality (Berman, 1982; Derrida,
2000). The city, however, because it brings strangers together, can produce or
illicit different imaginings and emotional economies, for example those of
anxiety and fear brought about by the proximity of others. This fear and
anxiety occur not simply because of difference, but also out of the sense of
‘brushing past’, of having contact with that which is unfamiliar, strange and
thus viewed as potentially dangerous.
This chapter explores this constellation of fear and the social forces,
assumptions and images that construct it.1 The chapter’s underlying presupposi-
tion is that there are many locations for fear that run parallel to one another in
modernity, one of which will be discussed here – the social imaginary of the
city. The aim of the chapter is to walk, not simply on ‘the wild side’, but also
on the negative one, that is, to explore even momentarily an aspect that is
available to all of us in a context that may prompt, promote and even foster this
particular dimension of the human soul. This is not an attempt, as Judith
Shklar would say, of putting cruelty first, but at least of acknowledging it,
how it might be mobilised out of an economy of affects, of acknowledging a
complexity of the human condition (Shklar, 1984; Rundell, 2013a).
The chapter begins by exploring two images and ideas of the city, around
which the social theoretical tradition has revolved, both of which are linked in
some way to its idealisation in both positive and negative terms. One image,
presented by Weber, constructs the city as a space for the circulation of freedoms,
which can be monopolised or contested, that is a space for power, politics and
economic exchange. Another image is portrayed, for example more nega-
tively, by Simmel in his study of the metropolis. The metropolis opens up the
problematic of fear and the city through the image of the stranger. The image
of the stranger invariably accompanies the one of the alien, as someone who,
while coming to live in the city appears always as the outsider, and thus is
Imagining cities: Strangers and contingency 49
always at hand as a subject of and for fear. This apparent coexistence between
freedom and the known, and the alien and the unknown generates the
apparent inner tension or unease of city life.2

Strangers in the night

In his The Other Victorians Steven Marcus gives a gripping portrayal of the
other side of Victorian propriety – of sexual perverts, miscreants and porno-
graphers for whom ‘dangerous liaisons’ were not only a way of life removed
from the boredom and constraint of bourgeois everyday life, but also an
excitement. While Clarke points to the aristocratic dimension of this other
‘Victoria’, it is also one that is constituted in terms of those who also live on
the edge of bourgeois society – the working class and the poor – but unlike
the aristocracy are constituted by it. This is also the world of Mayhew’s
London and its (or his) underworld (Marcus, 1969; Mayhew, 1951; Quennell,
1983; Linebaugh, 1993).
Marx, in a more dramatic gesture, and as a way of separating the fearful
from his beloved working class gave voice to an attitude that articulates the
fear of the ‘otherness’ of the city. For him, this attitude is summed up in his
portrayal of the ‘lumpenproletariat’, the category into which the underbelly is
cast. As he says, in one of his most theatrical pieces:

[A]longside decayed roués of doubtful origin and uncertain means of

subsistence, alongside ruined and adventurous scions of the bourgeoisie,
there were vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged criminals, escaped
galley slaves, swindlers, confidence tricksters, lazzaroni, pickpockets,
sleight-of-hand experts, gamblers, macquereux, brothel keepers, porters,
pen-pushers, organ-grinders, rag-and-bone merchants, knife-grinders, tin-
kers, and beggars: in short the whole indeterminate fragmented mass
tossed backwards and forwards, which the French call la bohème.
(Marx, 1973: 197)

Here, the poor and the indigent are lumped together, not so much because
they are outsiders, but because they do not work and are property-less. As
such they are subject to awe, fear, ridicule – and policing (Febvre, 1998).
Our contemporary ‘Victorians’ might include many of these people who
may continue to instil a sense of fear and/or excitement, but they, nonetheless,
would now also include drug addicts and crack heads, graffiti artists, refugees
and the homeless, not to mention the psychotic and specific and idiosyncratic
world of the serial killer, serial rapist or serial gunman who calculatingly
stalks the concrete or cyber streets, confirming the always unsettling fact of
the indeterminacy of human life, and the indeterminate irrational grasp that
each of us has on reality.
The city makes us afraid – of one another, of ourselves, and of the dark,
especially of the darkened alleys and doorways, cul-de-sacs and arcades. Let
50 Tensions of modernity
there be light – especially the light of the boulevards and freeways that take us
home. The fog may have lifted, but Jack the Ripper still lurks, to strike again.

Daytime: ‘City air makes one free’

Let us look, though, at a positive portrayal of the city to glean an under-
standing of what type of city we are talking about, at least in the daytime. If
we take Weber’s important and unique reading of cities in The City as a
guide – nuances and interpretative moves that are too complex to dwell on
here – then the city we are talking about is the modern ‘producer city’, as
against the consumer and merchant ones. In the case of consumer cities,
according to Weber, the dynamic of the city rests on the purchasing power of
large households, often located in and around the court. This location char-
acterises these cities as ones that are, historically and typologically speaking,
subordinated to patrimonial power. Weber, nonetheless, gives some hints that
the consumer city may take some modern, contemporary or even postmodern
forms, in that contemporary consumers are orientated towards the mon-
etarised imaginary and its revenue sources – property, dividends, shares and
credit – and the styles of life through which these can be experienced. While
Weber points to the historical interrelation between the merchant and
the producer city, he insists on a conceptual distinction. Rather than being
reliant on trade and consumption alone, the producer city is one in which
purchasing power is based on the production of the goods and services,
themselves within the orbit of the city, notwithstanding how extended this
orbit may be (Weber, 1978a: 1216).
Moreover, Weber characterises modern producer cities, in no less telling,
although in more prosaic terms than Marx in The Communist Manifesto, as
the most dynamic forms of human habitat. The move from the rural areas to
cities produces a population of both mass producers and mass consumers
located around the world of factories and productive enterprises, and this
world constitutes the dynamic for their self-constituting growth (Weber,
1978a: 1216). Modern monetarised development, which in this instance is
synonymous with these cities for both Marx and Weber, is not only self-
reproducing, but also a type of development that subsumes the country to their
logic. Moreover, the logic of these modern producer cities also reorientates life
conduct from a military form to an economic one – a combination of instru-
mental rationality and the money form. In Weber’s terms, this conduct
systematised purposive rationality, stability and peace into the conduct and
exchanges between human beings. This subsumption and reorientation occurs
through the market, which not so much mediates the exchange of goods and
services, but constitutes their exchange in a very specific way. As he says, it
makes the commodity the point of intersection and orientation, rather than
personal attributes or value orientations. This makes markets, and by impli-
cation modern producer cities, impersonal. The participants in these exchanges
‘do not look towards the persons of each other but only toward the
Imagining cities: Strangers and contingency 51
commodity; there are no obligations of brotherliness or reverence, and none
of those spontaneous human relations that are sustained by personal unions’
(Weber, 1978b: 636).
Simmel makes a similar point in his Philosophy of Money when he argues
that modernity is organised around increasingly abstract forms of association
of which money is the paradigmatic form. Money as abstract association
intricately binds consumption and production together in ever enlarging circles
that even extend our sense of time – from the present into the future through
more or less permanent credit and indebtedness (Simmel, 1978). In this sense,
monetarisation re-organises the city along a number of axes – temporally,
spatially and experientially. It not only reorganises these, it also extends their
‘horizons’ and thus becomes a new global phenomenon in the ontological,
and not simply the imperialising, sense. ‘Globalisation’, as an overdrawn
trope for the long-historical reach of the monetarised reorganisation of the
world, and the economic dynamic of the modern producer – and now new
consumer – cities, goes hand in hand (Bauman, 2007; Smart, 2010).
In addition, the impersonality and indifference of abstract monetarisation,
the market, its rationality and peacefulness, does not entail that, as a social
intercourse, it is not without power in the form of monopolising conduct.
Weber’s argument is that the mobilisation of power resources is orientated
towards the entry or exclusion of social actors, including collective social
actors, into the market as either buyers or sellers. It is not only money that is
the symbolic expression of either openness or closure, but also contracts in
which everything is condensed to a formally‒legally legitimated private
property right, including knowledge in the form of credentials. In Weber’s
view, though, and taken from the vantage point of his historical sociology of
domination, market relations, and by implication, producer cities, are ‘essentially
open’, although oligarchically orientated and structured, social constellations
(Weber, 1978a: 1216). In the context of Weber’s analysis in The City there is a
competition between oligarchically structured and relatively closed economic
and political forms of power represented by Renaissance Venice, and relatively
open and contestatory political forms in which economic matters become
more or less subordinate to these political dramas. For Weber the repre-
sentative Renaissance cities are Milan, Lucca, Lodi, Pavia, Sienna, Verona
and Bologna (Weber, 1978a: 1273–1276, 1302–1309).3
The creation of independent and territorially expansive markets by the city
also entailed the creation of the modern city’s ability to exercise power and
rights of markets and to develop its own economic policies, including those of
imperial and colonial expansion. The modern city’s ability to control markets
took the form of not only price controls, but also its capacity to prevent
counter-markets and counter-industries forming outside both the parameters
and controls of the city. If, in the long history of power formations, the state
has been at constant war with cities, then modern producer cities, especially,
have had an equally more or less permanent war with the countryside (Weber,
1978a: 1328–1329).
52 Tensions of modernity
Furthermore, the capacity of the modern city to create an economic indepen-
dence was also accompanied, more strongly, co-constituted, by its ability to forge
a political‒legal autonomy. Historically, this city type has been the hallmark
and idealised social form for both the development and expression of politics
and political autonomy. In the context of the formation of the Italian
Renaissance city states – one of the predominant sites of idealisation – political
autonomy was forged against the patrimonial bureaucracy of the church, the
Habsburg Empire and other centralising state tendencies, in the French or
English cases, for example. Again, according to Weber’s ideal‒typical historical
reconstruction, political and juridical‒administrative autonomy was manifest
in the creation of autonomous and uniform law that was not subject to the
bureaucratic state, and which was applied to the problems of urban land
ownership, market relations and trade. More importantly though, this autonomy
was manifested by, and identified with, democratic association, legislation,
jurisdiction and contestation – of whatever type ‒ sometimes corporatist,
sometimes representational, sometimes co-optive (Weber, 1978a: 1301–1309;
Rundell, 2009). The creation of political and legal autonomy was also
accompanied by the ability of the city to develop its own administrative
agencies that stood against the patrimonial state. The formation of independent
bureaucratic structures enabled cities to, among other things, levy taxation
and raise armies – prerogatives usually reserved for the state.
The coalescence of political, economic and administrative autonomy gave
the city an especially powerful ethos and mythic quality summed up in the
phrase ‘city air makes one free’ (‘Stadtluft macht frei’). As Weber points out,
the occidental city, from antiquity onward was a place where

ascent from bondage to freedom by means of monetary means was possible.

This was even more true for the medieval city, and especially for the
medieval inland city. [As Weber goes onto say] the urban citizenry
usurped the right to dissolve the bonds of seigniorial domination; this was
the great – in fact, the revolutionary – innovation which differentiated the
medieval occidental cities from all others.
(Weber, 1978a: 1238–1239)

Distinctions or differences between ‘the free’ and ‘the unfree’ disappeared.

Rank was no longer the social category that identified one’s social and political
location. Nor were the bonds of familiarity that filled status based relations
the ones that necessarily tied people together. A different category of social
actor emerged that signified a world of more or less open possibilities – the
contingent stranger. New forms of power in terms of the monopolisation or
fracturing of markets and politics bound contingent strangers.
Tensions and conflicts, nonetheless, occur that are not caused by markets
and politics alone. They also occur because of increases in population density as
migrations from the countryside and other parts of the world to cities intensify,
which also intensifies, extends and lessens the chains of interdependence
Imagining cities: Strangers and contingency 53
between contingent strangers. In the city, as Simmel so tellingly observed,
everything is the same, and yet different, or as Elias also points out in a dif-
ferent context, there is, somewhat misleadingly, the diminishing of affective
contrasts (or really extremes) and the increase in experiential varieties. There
is also a new space of indeterminate creations, and, thus, of possibilities. And
these possibilities were not only about markets and politics, but also about the
constellations of proximity between the inhabitants, old and new, in the city
and the fears that these created.4

The experience of the metropolis: From conditional to

contingent strangers
With this sense of proximity in mind, we can switch perspective and return to
the beginning of this chapter, to another and more recent city – not one pre-
occupied with the constellation of money and power, but of excitement, fear
and contingency. The starting point for this part of our discussion, which also
returns us to our core problem and theme of cities, citizens and strangers, can
be taken from Janik and Toulmin’s observations on Wittgenstein’s and Freud’s
Vienna at the turn of the twentieth century – another fin de siècle. Like Weber’s
Venice and other Renaissance cities, we can read ‘Vienna’ historically and
metaphorically, as a productive city not only of outcasts and an ‘underclass’,
but also of new social traffic, new experiences, and new emotional economies
(Janik and Toulmin, 1973).
As Mennell and I have noted elsewhere, by the end of the long Hapsburg
imperial centuries, that is, the central European nineteenth century, the metro-
polis or cosmopolitan producer city had become the centre of gravity for the
experience of modern life, especially the ways in which this experience was
expressed culturally (Rundell and Mennell, 1998: 16–17; Luft, 1980; Schorske,
1982; Mumford, 1961). Elias, for example, points out that an accommodation
had been reached between the courtly elite and the haute bourgeoisie that
found expression in militaristic clubs and high culture (Elias, 1996). However,
there was no such accommodation, only unease, towards the strange and the
unfamiliar, which became increasingly diverse and evident. Classes and groups
that had been more or less distant from and unfamiliar to each other came into
closer contact as cities expanded and were redesigned. There was an increased
social visibility of not only the industrial working class, which had achieved
certain forms of political representation and power, but also ethnic groups like
Jews and others such as the Czechs and the Hungarians, who had their own
national aspirations. Drawing on an urban metaphor, there was an increase in
social traffic – day and night. This increase brought ressentiment and disdain
expressed and constituted more by the avoidance of interaction than by inter-
action itself (Rundell and Mennell, 1998: 16; Schorske, 1982: 24–115; Janik and
Toulmin, 1973: 33–66; Luft, 1980: 1–22; Anderson, 1992: 1–73).
Robert Musil’s name for a particular case of this experience in Man without
Qualities – Vienna – was kakania. It means not only ‘Imperial‒Royal’ or
54 Tensions of modernity
‘Imperial and Royal’ but also ‘Excrementia’ and attempted to capture the
city’s double-sided nature. Kakania indicates a city that is ‘African and hot-
blooded, crazy with life, restless, unbeautiful, passionate [in which] … the
couples waltz’ in a bacchanalian frenzy where lust is let loose and ‘no God
inhibits them’ (Janik and Toulmin, 1973: 34). Moreover, part of this leben-
slust is the cosmopolitan character of the city, of cafes, not only populated
by fine nobility and bourgeois men and women, but also their sons and
daughters – the artists and musicians who made up the cultural life of the
city, as well as its bohemian subculture. It was, then, a city of hopes and
phantasies. But it was also a city with its rudimentary, harsh and cruel side –
of inadequate housing for its working class, of the lack of recognition for its
artists and intellectuals, musicians and composers, and its anti-Semitism,
imbedded as it was in resentment. Resentment manifested itself in hostility
to a particular group – to what was perceived as a pariah culture and its
people – the Jews. It was also manifested in the nationalities question in
which identity was constructed not only in class terms, but also, and
importantly, in regional and linguistic ones. As Peter Gay also comments,
‘Vienna, never really a city of operettas and flirtations, was the city of ugly
rehearsals’ (Gay, 1978: 77).5
Within this constellation spanning both fin de siècles – and here Vienna
could be any modern metropolitan and cosmopolitan city from London to
New York, Sydney to Shanghai, Dublin to Abu Dhabi – new relations of
inclusion and exclusion are formed and others refigured; in this process,
strangers play a key role through their simultaneous closeness and remoteness
(Zukin, 1995: 259–294).
From the standard classical socio-theoretical standpoint strangeness entails
that the stranger is treated not as an individual but – as Simmel said – is
abstracted as a certain type, even in the metropolis (Simmel, 1971b: 143–149).
Strangers are abstracted individuals or groups because characteristics that are
not in common with the host group are made prominent, different and
potentially demeaned. In other words, specific characteristics are singled out
as the basis for differentiation, vulgarisation and vilification (Eco, 2011).
From Simmel’s perspective the host group can share some minimal qualities
with the stranger, but these are not enough to integrate or bind the stranger to
the host group. Rather, the host group builds itself through organic and
necessary internal relations established through ties of kinship, place and his-
torical experience that bind past, present and even future together. This gives
the stranger an outsiderly existence, always existing as if he or she was an
historical and social accident, like a permanent exile. This is their ontological
position (Simmel, 1971b: 143–149).
But is the stranger a type, an abstraction, a permanent exile? Following an
essay by Agnes Heller, that because of its seminal quality I have discussed
elsewhere, a distinction can be made between conditional and contingent
strangers (Heller, 2011: 159–176; Rundell, 2004b).6 From the vantage point of
the long history of exile, war, trade and adventurism, conditional strangers
Imagining cities: Strangers and contingency 55
can be viewed as travellers, soldiers, sailors or outcasts from a home, a coun-
try or a position to which they can potentially return. Conditional strangers
maintain their centre of gravity and self-identity because they see themselves
on an existential voyage that includes the homeward journey, even if others
who do not understand them perceive them as strange. The home which one
left and to which one is always really or potentially returning to gives an
ontological security to both the stranger and the group with whom he or she
is interacting and living. Both know that it is temporary, even if it is a lifelong
experience. This was the case with Ulysses, Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta.
Home is something to be talked about – because it is always elsewhere (Heller,
2011: 159–176).
The experience of the conditional stranger is not only a pre-modern one; it
is also the condition, today, of the modern tourist and his/her predecessor, the
nineteenth-century flaneur and parvenu so idolised by Charles Baudelaire and
Walter Benjamin, and more recently and ambivalently portrayed by Zygmunt
Bauman (Benjamin, 1979, 1985; Bauman, 2001; Heins, 2011). It is, and as
significantly, the condition of the contract or illegal migrant workers whose
location is temporary and exists in central industries in nation states which
deny them citizenship. The immigrant worker who is without citizenship
rights in countries in which he or she is employed is treated by the particular
nation state as a conditional stranger rather than a contingent one. There is a
home elsewhere to go to. This is the plight of workforces throughout, for
example, the nation states of the Middle East and the Persian Gulf, which
draw extensively on the labour markets in India, Pakistan and the Philippines,
or of illegal workers from Central and South America who work without a
green card in the USA, of the internal immigrants in China, and until very
recently of Turks who existed under the guest worker label in Germany prior
to the change in citizen law in 1999 (Syed, 2010).
The situation and life experience of the contingent stranger is quite different.
The contingent stranger’s voyage is one of disconnection from home and thus
also the past. There is no home to which to return. Home is already here, in
the present. As already indicated, the conditional stranger identity can be
sustained, in the context of the promise of the return, or suspended, especially
when a homeward journey can be delayed or waylaid. In the case of the
contingent stranger, though, there is no inner support and succour derived
from the promise. Nor is there a suspension when the length of time between
past, present and future becomes increasingly ‘stretched’ There is simply the
emergence of a plurality of perspectives, no longer based on continuities
between past, present and future, or a distinction between host and guest, but
discontinuities and distinctions based simply on divisions of perspectives
between contingent strangers. All contingent strangers claim identities in the
present, where the past is left behind, and the future is always the ‘future
present’, as Luhmann would say (Luhmann, 1982; Rundell, 2009).
Seen in this light, the notion of the contingent stranger is a hermeneutical
reconstruction, the historicity of which belongs to the specificity of the
56 Tensions of modernity
meaning of the experience and attraction of the modern metropolis, which
Heller, for one, views as a coalescence of freedom and contingency. More
specifically and as discussed elsewhere, in her view the modern condition is,
ontologically speaking, a world of open possibilities in which destiny or a pre-
described voyage home cannot be undertaken from birth. This kind of freedom,
though, is not the type of positive freedom that Weber describes as revolutionary
in his depiction of the early modern city. To be sure, while for Heller, there is
a freedom that is constitutive of the modern period proper, it is a freedom
that is empty (Heller, 1992: 13; Rundell, 2004b).
In this sense we are all contingent strangers. The experience and position of
contingent strangers is, thus, not the experience of either outsiders (the old
paradigm) or conditional strangers (Rundell, 2004b). It is the experience of all
people, generally as they nestle uncomfortably within the modern contingent
condition that disrupts, disembeds and creates spaces for ‘the new’. These new
spaces for creation are not only aesthetic ones, but also new modern ones that
are more than and different from the monetarised economies described by Marx,
Weber and Simmel. They are also the spaces of nation states, democracies,
totalitarian experiments and explosions of techniques from the mastery of
nature to the mastery of the sign. Notwithstanding the differentiation of these
modern spaces from one another, the space of the producer‒metropolitan‒
cosmopolitan city as a cultural experience and imaginary of contingency and
empty and distanciated freedoms and fears helps to constitute and guide our
way uneasily through them.

Night and day: Contingency and fear

However, there is not only the experience of the contingency of modern freedom.
If producer‒metropolitan‒cosmopolitan city air makes us free and this freedom
is empty, it is also a space in which different imaginings can occur in the
context of proximities and the tensions that these proximities give rise to. They
are, then, the imaginings, the creations of modern fears. The fear that modern
city space engenders is distinct from the fear that the pre-modern contexts
propagate with their preoccupation of the familiar, the household (oikos), the
known, and thus the unknown in the form of the magical and the demonic.
Producer‒metropolitan‒cosmopolitan city fear is the fear of contingency and
proximity, whether this is articulated in terms of otherness, difference, distinctions,
lifestyles or ‘life-choices’ that take their form in everyday life. Everything is a
possibility, and everything can be a subject of fear. The horrific and the
horror genre no longer originate from other-worldliness, but from the combina-
tion of this-worldliness and our own imaginings – a generalised ‘kakania’. No
longer exorcisms, just The Exorcist.
Notwithstanding the presence of conditional strangerhood, Simmel’s
‘Metropolis and Mental Life’ can now be interpreted from the vantage point
of the paradigmatic condition of the empty freedom of the contingent stranger,
a condition that also throws into relief the lessening and increasing chains of
Imagining cities: Strangers and contingency 57
interdependence, of distance and closeness, and the simultaneity of sameness
and difference. As discussed elsewhere, Simmel portrays the double-sided
nature of metropolitan life, a portrayal that is more complex than the one
presented by Weber (Simmel, 1971b; Rundell, 2004b). For Simmel, metropolitan
life is constituted and experienced in a double-sided way. On the one hand, it
is experienced as difference, flux, individuality and quality, and on the other
as indifference, distance, abstraction, intellectualisation, calculating quantifi-
cation and impersonality. In this latter context individuality is not so much
‘lost’, but abstracted: the metropolitan man or woman becomes ‘a single cog
as ever against the vast overwhelming organisation of things and forces’
(Simmel, 1971b: 337). For Simmel this abstraction is encapsulated in the blasé
metropolitan attitude, which becomes the normal one that emerges from this
experience. ‘The essence of the blasé attitude is an indifference towards the
distinctions between things’, and it is the attitude through which we cope with
the issue of proximity (Simmel, 1971b: 329).
The blasé metropolitan attitude is the generalised attitude of the contingent
stranger, once we are all contingent strangers, that is, contingent. From the
vantage point of abstraction and ‘intellectualisation’ we only interact in
highly mediated ways. In Simmel’s insightful analyses these abstract and
mediated ways include money, time and bureaucratic management (Simmel,
1978; Rundell, 2004b). They also include the abstract medium of citizenship
and ‘imagined communities’ of nation states, sometimes mediated by the vote,
as well as technologically mediated interactions by way of telephones,
keyboards and ‘face-to-face’ ‘skyping’. The mutuality of the mediated inter-
actions in these real and metaphorical new-world cities is a mutuality between
contingent strangers. Each, from his/her own perspective, constructs the other
as a contingent stranger to him/herself. Each can be viewed with a latent
antipathy that is only checked by the distanciation, abstraction and mediation
that the blasé attitude itself entails. Hence, cold reserve is the form that
productive‒metropolitan‒cosmopolitan mutuality takes.
However, as Simmel notes, and in Heller’s terms, this blasé metropolitan
attitude, as indicated above, is accompanied and co-constituted by another
version of empty freedom in modernity. Abstraction assures ‘the individual of
a type and a degree of personal freedom to which there is no analogy in other
circumstances’ (Simmel, 1971b: 332). This personal freedom increases the
distance between oneself and others. As Simmel states,

in an intellectualised and refined sense, the citizen of the metropolis is

‘free’ in contrast with the trivialities and prejudices which bind the small
town person. The mutual reserve and indifference, and the intellectual
conditions of life in large social units are never more sharply appreciated
in their significance for the independence of the individual than in the
dense crowds of the metropolis because the bodily looseness and lack of
space make intellectual distance really perceivable for the first time.
(Simmel, 1971b: 334)
58 Tensions of modernity
However, indifferent and distanciated freedom can be viewed as a nothing-
ness, a fear, and a double and paradoxical one at that. In the context of the
distanciated freedom of the producer‒metropolitan‒cosmopolitan city there is
the fear that one will remain alone in the continuing experience of contingent
complexity, and thus, the inner and outer scream (of panic, distress, terror)
will neither be heard nor responded to. ‘In (city) space no-one can hear you
But there is also an accompanying paradoxical fear in the face of this fear
of aloneness and isolation, the fear that once an interaction is invoked, which
is more than one of aversion, it will be an invasion – the result of which may
well be aggression. Once the distance is breached and one experiences the
closeness rather than congestion of the city, the close proximity of all differ-
ences can be the source and the ground of fear. In this sense, the emotional
economy of fear and anxiety and the potential aggression that always
accompanies it is the result of a real or potential interaction, particularly with
something or someone who is co-present yet unknown. To put it another way,
and following Elias’s notion of figuration in this instance, it is not aggression
that triggers interaction, but interaction, especially fearful ones that trigger
aggression (Elias, 1982–83: 134).7 In other words, and addressing the specificity
of the metropolis of modernity, there is the fear that one’s own selfhood will
be encroached, limited or denied. This selfhood is constituted as a con-
tingency. This contingency and the sense of self that is constituted with it can
take many forms and representations – from one’s own property, to one’s own
body, to one’s own identity. As indicated above, the new horror genres belong
here – originating in modern social imaginaries and not only as works of
fantasy in the older, more conventional meaning of the term.
There is thus not only the creation and creativity of empty and distanciated
freedom, but also the creation and creativity of empty and distanciated fear in
the context of these interactions. In the producer‒metropolitan‒cosmopolitan
city everything is open to fear and vilification. Anyone or anything can be
feared and scapegoated. There are no longer the usual suspects identified by
religious or ethnic type, or as the old or new la bohème or dispossessed. These
fears and vilifications now include not only the fear of poverty and the indigent.
They also include the fears of untidiness, of dissonance, of feeling, of sepa-
rateness, of loss, of uniqueness, of pain as well as pleasure, and especially of
not being in control.
We are no longer contingent strangers simply in the cities of rehearsals, but
ones in the increasingly fearful imaginary creations of modernity in general,
even cyber modernity. In our expanded producer‒metropolitan‒cosmopolitan
city, our modernity in general, fears can be formed of monetarised economies
and their fantasies of endless growth, speculation and consumption with their
fat cats and the ‘super-rich’; of technological fantasies, so well depicted by
Mary Shelley that now engineer and transform the body as a code and sign of
the monstrous; hyper-planned, governed and integrated nation states that begin
to identify and potentially or really exterminate those who are transformed
Imagining cities: Strangers and contingency 59
from contingent strangers to new outsiders and deemed enemies in the planful
fury of the holocaustal imagination; the uncertainty of the demos and what
appears as endless argument and negotiation; and finally the fear of intensified
family forms of not only mergence, but also of new cruelties where Freddy
Kruger no longer stalks the pavement, but the corridors of our homes and
our imaginings.
‘The fear is out there.’ Except, perhaps, in ‘spaces’ of contemplation and
even stillness and silence where new experiences of transcendence may occur –
no longer in the cathedrals or in the extra-mundane in the sense that Charles
Taylor means, but in the this-sided new spaces of possibility (Taylor, 2007).
These new spaces may be constituted, for example, in the listening and creation
of music, the absorption in and creation of artwork, or a piece of writing, the
listening to and the creation of love, the contemplation of the garden or a
piece of nature (a non-human animal, for instance) in which one does not
need to interfere. However, these spaces are not really about spaces, as such.
They are about different relationships, anchored as much in the work of the
creativity of one’s radical imaginary, as in the quite distinct social and inter-
subjective or figurational imaginaries that co-constitute them – of love,
friendship, dignity and beauty, where ‘a purposiveness without purpose’ that
integrates all of our senses and sensibilities may reign. It is in inter-
subjectivities of non-interference, of the specificity of the subject on both
sides, as well as in the ‘gap’ between them that cannot or should not be filled
immediately, that one confronts fear and may begin to sublate it (Rundell,

1 Versions of this essay were presented at ‘The City and Fear’ and ‘Imagining Cities’
colloquium. I would like to thank John Friedman and Peter Murphy for their
invitations and to the participants for their comments and criticism.
2 In order not to be misunderstood, I maintain that this paper is not intended to
throw the cosmopolitan-normative baby out with the bathwater. But it does wish to
explore an unease that may run parallel to, but does not necessarily co-constitute
this cosmopolitanism. I have explored this aspect of negativity in Rundell, 2013a.
3 While the historiography of Weber’s text is rich and complex it is not that aspect
which is central here. Rather one can read Weber’s The City from the present and
from the vantage point of the complexities of political modernity. Weber’s present
context is the ongoing crises of the Weimer republic and the models of democracy
that are possible for both it and him. In other words, The City can be read as a
meditation on the political options of post-Bismarkian Germany.
4 Giddens argues against Weber that the city has been supplanted by the nation state
in modernity as the principle organising centre and power container. Yet, the argument
here is that much of the ethos, culture and experience of the city qua metropolis
remains even to this day. Because of this it is a parallel constituting space of
modernity. See Giddens (1981).
5 Alongside its richness, Gay’s essay on Freud is also an attempt to break down the
interpretation that links the formation of psychoanalysis with what he sees as the
invention of ‘Vienna’ by cultural historians.
60 Tensions of modernity
6 In an earlier essay entitled ‘Strangers, Citizens and Outsiders’ (Rundell, 2004b) and
following the formulation deployed by Agnes Heller I used her distinction of con-
ditional and absolute strangers. On subsequent reflection the term contingent
stranger is more apposite.
7 In the light of the above discussion and to put it slightly differently fear disrupts the
enclosed condition of the psychic world of the subject (Castoriadis). It is thus an
inter-subjectively orientated feeling that negatively evaluates any other qua outside.
To have no fear means that one has no relation with an outside, with others.
Part 2
Political modernities
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4 Durkheim and the reflexive condition
of modernity

Durkheim: Representation, reflexivity and political modernity

The current conjunction of rapidly changing historical events, and the creation
of relatively new political and cultural forces provides an opportunity to
revisit classical social theory from a vantage point of post-classical attitudes,
which include among other things, a scepticism towards the unity of an
oeuvre. What is taken as post-classical sociology is not an emancipation of
critical theories only from the spirit of Marxism, but also from the burden of
prejudicial receptions and even the self-(mis)understandings of authors, which
took on the legacy of orthodoxy. One can, then, revisit the sociological clas-
sics in order to extend and generalise their perspectives on other problems,
theoretical traditions and trajectories.
In this chapter, Durkheim’s work is approached from a double vantage point.
Durkheim’s work is looked at from one vantage point of a post-classical attitude
that, in this reading, intersects the ontological recasting of the social in the
work of Castoriadis.1 Even though Castoriadis rarely refers to Durkheim, and
his work stems from an interrogation of the categories of historical materialism,
he takes an explicit ‘imaginary turn’ in order to more fully address similar
questions and issues that remained central yet unresolved and open to question
in Durkheim’s work. In other words, it can be argued that Castoriadis’s work
stands also in the wake of Durkheim’s central notion of collective repre-
sentations, and the way it has continued to cast its long shadow over the
French intellectual tradition (Castoriadis, 1997a: 318; Howard and Pacom,
1998: 83–101; Rundell, 2004a: 307–343).2 In a similar way that Durkheim
posits his notion of collective representations, Castoriadis also posits that
social imaginary significations are, in the ontological sense, the glue that
binds society together, and as such possess positive validity. For Castoriadis,
the status of the constitution of socially produced meaning creations – or
imaginary significations – can only be addressed by invoking the idea of the
excess or surplus of meaning that cannot be ‘soaked up’ entirely in its
linguistic or symbolic form.3 At this level, they are incontestable and contain
the truth content of a society that is irreducible to its logical content. Truth,
in Castoriadis’s view and similarly to Durkheim’s view, constitutes the
64 Political modernities
dimension of social closure at the level of the sacred. In other words, the
binding, meaningfully rich collective representation places its own truth outside
the possibility that it might be questioned or contested.
However, it is at this point that the other part of Castoriadis’s project
enters, and with some delimiting results. The value horizon to which his work
is orientated is the horizon of autonomy, which indicates reflexivity and social
openness, and it is against this that Castoriadis judges and constructs social
types. Its opposite is the heteronomous social type, which for him represents
most of the history of human societies. While autonomy, for Castoriadis,
occurs through a social opening begun as a question, and is, thus, a position
through which the subject, as well as social imaginaries are decentred, none-
theless, his privileging of it as political condition entails that reflexivity itself is
restricted only to those periods and forms of activity that are constituted
through this particular type of opening.
It is in this context of social opening that I will concentrate on Durkheim’s
work, rather than Castoriadis’s, to explore this issue of reflexivity and openness.
This is done in the context of Durkheim’s notion of collective representations
and the long dureé of the modern period. Durkheim’s model of reflexivity
opens onto another vantage point from which his work is approached in this
chapter, that of political modernity. Here political modernity is viewed as a
particular constellation of the circulation of power, especially in nation states,
open forms of reflexivity, and democracy, in contrast to another political
modernity that revolves around totalitarianism, terrorism and the closed
reflexive form of the redemptive paradigm (Fehér, 1987c: 61–76; Heller, 1987:
243–259). Durkheim’s work can be a fruitful point of departure for an analysis
and critique of political modernity because his theorisation occurs in a way that
opens onto its forms of political representation, its historical development, and
its mode of reflexivity, especially. So, by approaching his work in this way, light
can be further thrown onto the images of political modernity that Durkheim
himself constructs, as well as the often-incomplete insights that emerge from it
which equally provide insight into the nature of political modernity itself.
This is especially so if his lesser-known work is taken as a point of departure.
This work includes Professional Ethics and Civic Morals (a series of lectures
written between 1890 and 1900, of which only the first three on professional
ethics were initially published posthumously in 1937, and finally as a whole in
1950); The Evolution of Educational Thought (a book misleadingly titled and
thus studiously ignored by general sociology, which began life as a series of
lectures originally delivered in 1904, first published in French in 1938 and
English in 1977); and his important 1898 essay in defence of Dreyfus, ‘Indi-
vidualism and the Intellectuals’, all of which are interpreted against the
background of The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, published in 1912,
and Pragmatism and Sociology.
Thus, the logic of the following discussion is not to impute to Durkheim a
model of political modernity that is extraneous to his own sociological project
with its own nuances and shifts. Rather, as indicated above it is argued that
Durkheim and the condition of modernity 65
there are three interconnected strands that constitute an image – a theory
would be altogether too strong – of political modernity within his work,
which, to be sure, entails that some aspects are emphasised at the expense of
others. From this vantage point the strands are: an ideal of social reflexivity
that is internal to the construction of his notion of collective representation; a
civilisational image of the occident, which is deployed especially in The Evolu-
tion of Educational Thought and alluded to in Professional Ethics and Civic
Morals; and his commitment to civic republicanism and his deployment of
the professional associations.
Before we can discuss Durkheim’s images of political modernity, we must
begin from this basic insight of collective representation before turning to the
issues of civilisation and open reflexivity, where his study of the medieval
university plays a crucial role. It will be argued that Durkheim views the
medieval university as not only a source for a publicly located reflexivity that
is required for political modernity. He views it as a model.

Collective representations as cultures of reflexivity

Durkheim’s concern with reflexivity emerges from his preoccupation with the
relation between the representative forms of civic sovereignty, its public
nature, principles and ethos. In this first instance, reflexivity is located in his
notion of representation. While in his political writings Durkheim’s reference
point is the modern post-Absolutist French civic republic, the notion of
representation that he develops carries three meanings, two of which belong
to the heritage of republican meaning and a third which is internal to his con-
ceptual vocabulary. First, representation refers to the question of democratic
political representation. Second, it refers to the idea of politics as public and
rational deliberation. Third, it refers to the specific focus and form of con-
sciousness that is articulated in the context of political deliberations, or works in
the background as a collective representation in the way that he deploys this
term in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Durkheim deploys this
third notion of representation in a triple sense as a human self-image, a self-
representation of society, and a media of creativity and self-expression. In this
context, politics functions in the same homologous way that religion does for
Durkheim. If religion, or religious beliefs are separate from everyday concrete
reality, and construct a social ideal through which a societal membership
coheres, then politics, for him, is not only an organisational phenomenon. It
is also one of social‒collective ideals and belongs as much to the world of
sacred belief as religion does (Durkheim, 1976: 63–77, 1969: 14–30).
While this homologous relation between religion and politics is part of a
well-established interpretation of Durkheim’s work, what stands behind this
third notion of representation is a complex formulation through which Durkheim
presents not only his social ontology, but also his philosophical anthropology
through which his notion of politics is grounded (see for example, La Capra,
1972; Cladis, 1992). Thus, while much of this commentary concentrates on
66 Political modernities
the sacred dimension of politics and the political much of it overlooks the
centrality of the aspect of reflexivity. To establish the nature of this aspect of
Durkheim’s work, we now turn to this third meaning of representation, leaving
to one side, momentarily, the former two reference points.
While all societies, for Durkheim, are collective representations, not all
create principles of reflexivity to simultaneously reflect on the nature of the
representations and facilitate this process of reflexivity. It appears that Durkheim
approaches the issue of reflexivity on primarily epistemological grounds,
especially if this problem is read from the vantage point of his later 1914 lectures,
published under the title of Pragmatism and Sociology, in which he continues
to interrogate the notion of collective representations. In his own discussion of
Durkheim’s encounter with pragmatism Lukes correctly argues that Durkheim
conflates two issues together: the philosophical problem of what truth is, and
the appropriate method to establish this; and a sociological one concerning
the social contexts of knowledge. Leaving aside the former for the moment,
Lukes indicates four aspects of the sociology of collective representations that
Durkheim establishes through this sympathetic, but nonetheless critical,

[F]irst that such beliefs (including scientific ones) have a social origin;
second that their authority comes from society (‘truth is a norm for
thought as the moral ideal is a norm for conduct’); third, that they have a
social function, (‘reinforcing the social conscience…’); and fourth that they
are in ‘no way arbitrary: they are modelled on realities, and in particular
on the realities of social life’.
(Lukes, 1987: 495–496)4

Lukes’s remarks point to the way in which Durkheim argues that all collective
representations originate from social activity, and as such their truth content
is relative to this activity and thus is historically and culturally specific
(Durkheim, 1976: 2–3, 1983: 69–72). In other words, Durkheim argues that it
is the collective representations themselves that instil the nature of truth.
However, Durkheim recasts this relativism in terms of a commitment to the
value of reflexivity. If the ‘philosophical’ issue of truth is read from the vantage
point of his ‘Determination of Moral Facts’ (1906) and ‘Value Judgements
and Judgements of Reality’ (1911), as well as Pragmatism and Sociology, the
epistemological dimension is once again subsumed under a more anthro-
pological one that links it to his concern with the moral‒political concern
with (modern) society.
Durkheim’s commitment to the idea of reflexivity comes to the fore in an
anthropological register in the distinction he makes between mythological and
scientific collective representations. In Durkheim’s view, mythological collective
representations are those that stem from the collective creativity of social life,
which is then imposed on the collective membership in an obligatory way. In
mythological collective representations, so he argues, ‘it is our ideas and
Durkheim and the condition of modernity 67
beliefs which give the objects of thought their vitality … an idea is true not
because it conforms to reality, but by virtue of its creative power’ (Durkheim,
1983: 84). In Pragmatism and Sociology, Durkheim argues that a double
fusion occurs in mythological collective representations; on the one hand,
between individual and society in a way that implies intellectual unanimity, and
on the other, a fusion between nature and collective representation – a personi-
fication of nature – which implies their congruence. As he says, ‘such repre-
sentations are false with respect to things, but true with respect to the subjects
who think them’ (Durkheim, 1983: 87). In both cases, the reality that the
mythological collective representation constitutes is wholly social, with space for
neither a de-socialisation of individuality, nor a depersonalisation of nature.
The capacity for a separation between individual and society, and society
and nature is what Durkheim views as the basis for a reflexive collective
representation, an opening in what might be termed ‘the circles of collective
representations’. For Durkheim, reflexivity is the capacity of a society to
become conscious of itself in a way that admits objective or secondary criteria
(Durkheim, 1983: 89). Furthermore, for Durkheim, reflexivity presupposes
the existence of gaps or spaces within ‘circles of collective representations’, for
it is only through these that society can become aware of itself and something
new can occur (Durkheim, 1983: 82–83). In other words, a reflexive culture is one
that can systematically reflect upon the nature, illogicalities and inconsistencies of
its own collective representations and thus provide a space in which new and
alternate ones may develop. Durkheim, misleadingly and in the positivist
spirit of the nineteenth century, terms this type of reflexivity a scientific one,
and he equates modern reflexive culture with the Cartesian method. Although
this method, which Durkheim also equates with science, is rooted deeply in a
religious pre-history, because each translates reality into an intelligible language,
it is best equipped to purge cognitive collective representations ‘of all accidental
elements’ and bring ‘a spirit of criticism into all its doings which religion
ignores’. It can, so he continues, following Descartes rather than Kant in this
instance, ‘escape precipitation and bias and ‘hold aside the passions, prejudices
and all subjective affinities’ (Durkheim, 1976: 429).
In other words, what might be termed ‘the circle of social values’ is a basic
dimension of individual and collective life. It is also dualistic in that it is
constituted from two different aspects – the profane or everyday, and the
sacred or collective. According to Durkheim, the moral perspective of the pro-
fane world is particularistic, while the sacred’s moral perspective is universalistic
(Durkheim, 1953: 40). This results in ‘an enormous gap between the way
values are, in fact, estimated by the ordinary individual and the objective
scale of human values which should in principle govern our judgements’
(Durkheim, 1953: 83). As Durkheim points out, this ‘gap’ can be experienced
in two ways: either one that is closed dogmatically (or doxically) in the
manner of a mythology of the religious type; or one that can be opened, and
in which new collective representations can be created through the ferment
that occurs as a result of the intersection between diverse, individual
68 Political modernities
perspectives and collective ones (Durkheim, 1953: 91–92, 1983: 92). Moreover,
values themselves are different and refer to different qualities that are often
irreducible to one another. In other words, as Durkheim acknowledges, values
themselves, such as economic, religious or aesthetic ones, are perspectives that
will appear to be rational from one vantage point but irrational from the
other (Durkheim, 1953: 85). As he has already made it clear that the origin of
these values is a social one, his argument here concerns the diversity of values,
and a diversity that occurs within a social space that does not close over.
On one level, Durkheim’s response to the individualisation and diversity of
values is that value judgements are judgements that refer to collective ideals
that are concretised in objects and collectively understood (Durkheim, 1953:
80–87). In contrast to the Kantian strategy Durkheim argues that the condition
of understanding is established by collective representations, which are histori-
cally and culturally specific. The ideals that a society refers to are embedded
in these collective representations. Hence, in Durkheim’s view, all societies
have an idealised view of themselves (Durkheim, 1976: 422–423). A reflexive
dimension comes to the fore when this universality is challenged by different
and competing ideals (Durkheim, 1976: 423). Moreover, according to him,
this challenge is most intense during periods of ferment that bring people
together, not only for ritual recreation, but also for reflexive activity. Further-
more, to effectively create new collective representations, the reflexive ferment
should, in Durkheim’s view, undergo forms of institutionalisation that provide
a conduit and form for the cultural surplus that is produced. As he says, ‘the
periods of creation and renewal occur when men for various reasons are led
into a closer relationship with each other, when reunions and assemblies are
most frequent, relationships better maintained and the exchange of ideas
most active’ (Durkheim, 1953: 91).
In Durkheim’s view the new collective representations are not only new
social creations, but also new mythologies. Neither reason nor science can
explain nor validate the existence of new mythologies. Nor can science take
the role that mythologies fulfil, that is, giving substance to social and collective
life. As he says in his confrontation with pragmatism

[In the social and human world] we have to act and live; and in order to
live we something other than doubt. Society cannot wait for its problems
to be solved scientifically. It has to make decisions about what action to
take, and in order to make these decisions it has to have an idea of what
it is … If there is no objective knowledge, society can only know itself from
within, attempt to express this sense of itself, and to use that as a guide. In
other words, it must conduct itself with reference to a representation of
the same kind as those that constitute mythological truths.
(Durkheim, 1953: 90)

Durkheim is conveying two ideas and problems simultaneously here. On the

one hand, and sociologically, he is saying that the new mythologies, which
Durkheim and the condition of modernity 69
reconceptualise social principles, originate in, and belong to, collective repre-
sentations. On the other hand, and as his remarks in not only Pragmatism
and Sociology but also the essays in Sociology and Philosophy makes clear, a
form of depersonalisation or detachment is required so that social reflexivity
occurs. In this latter sense, Durkheim appeals to science to provide the
method for this detachment:

Society arrives at this fuller consciousness only by science; and science is

not an individual; it is a social thing pre-eminently impersonal … The
reason to which I make my appeal is reason applying itself to a given
matter in a methodological manner in order to understand the nature of
past and present morality, and which draws from this theoretical study its
practical consequences.
(Durkheim, 1953: 66–67)

Notwithstanding Durkheim’s appeal to science as the only method appro-

priate for the task of social reflexivity, nonetheless a number of different
dimensions emerge from his incomplete image of it. First, social reflexivity
refers to a process of social creativity that requires, second, an institutional
setting, together with, third, a mode of, and social space for, reflexivity. Fur-
thermore, and as other parts of Durkheim’s oeuvre indicate, social reflexivity
can be explored historically.

The open reflexive condition of modernity

Durkheim’s argument concerning the nature of reflexive cultures is not only
one that concerns their general formation; it is simultaneously an argument
concerning the formation of the political culture of western modernity. In his
view, there are three crucial and paradigmatic breakthroughs that signal, for
him, its formation – the development of the medieval university, the formation
of medieval guilds, and the French Revolution. Briefly, they are paradigmatic,
for Durkheim, because they introduce into the cultural and political topography
of the occident new dimensions that not only become part of its landscape,
but also a point from which critical reflection about its modernity occurs. The
medieval university, in particular, for Durkheim, becomes the paradigmatic
institutional representation for both public space and public reflexive activity
(an enlightened proto-public sphere). The other, not unrelated, innovation
that contributed to this early modern reflexive culture is the reconstitution of
the European guilds, centred in the cities, which became the basis of a new type
of social and individual identity separable from the two predominant types of
patrimonial power in the domestic sphere and the medieval state. In Durkheim’s
view, the medieval guilds typified by the guilds of university teachers, repre-
sented the first breakthrough to a form of autonomously structured political
association (Durkheim, 1977, 1992; Gane, 1990: 226–251). The French
Revolution is the paradigmatic representation of modernity’s political culture
70 Political modernities
that combines civic sovereignty and democratic representation in a language
of universal, individual rights, although in Durkheim’s view it is also represented
by Kant’s practical philosophy.
However, in the light of the formation of reflexive culture referred to above,
the medieval universities have central place, for Durkheim, and it is these that
the following discussion will focus on. Notwithstanding his appeal to science
as the reflexive mode of the modern period, the medieval universities are
important for Durkheim, and for this reading of his work, because they refer
to the formation of a mode of, and space for, reflexivity, which is relevant to
his reflections on political modernity. This is especially the case when its long
history is taken into account, and not one that is constructed in transcen-
dental terms. While it is beyond the scope of this chapter to detail his complex
and exhaustive reconstruction of their formation and development, they are
the primary representatives and proto-modern originators of cultures of critique.
In Durkheim’s analysis of the development of French educational thought
and practices, in the long overlooked The Evolution of Educational Thought
the medieval university is presented as an idealised point of reference. For
Durkheim, the medieval universities encompass the periods from the early
Renaissance to the Reformation. Specifically, Durkheim has in mind the eleventh
and twelfth centuries which, contrary to those who have

[p]ortrayed [them] as slumbering in a kind of intellectual torpor knew no

peace of mind. They were divided amongst themselves, pulled in two
opposite directions; it is [so he states] one of the periods of greatest
effervescence of the human mind in which innovations are fathered. The
harvest was to be gathered in subsequent ages, but it was then that the
seeds were sown.
(Durkheim, 1977: 73)

In other words, he sees them as embodying a period of intense creativity that

revolved around the development of a specific reflexive culture that has left its
mark on the formation of political modernity. In Durkheim’s view, the medieval
universities are important not only because they develop a proto-public
sphere, but also and as importantly, they develop a mode of reflexivity that
specialises in forms of detachment, what he terms ‘triadic culture’.
Contrary to Durkheim’s own appeal to Cartesianism, The Evolution of
Educational Thought presents a more complex formulation of reflexive cul-
ture. Triadic culture is constituted not only through science, but also the study
of history and historical consciousness, and linguistics (Durkheim, 1977: 348).
Together, they provide the means through which to challenge and overcome
both current utilitarian culture, which views everything as a technical vocation,
and the older religiously based reflexive cultures. These older religiously based
reflexive cultures assimilate everything into their own way of thinking, retreat
from the world in a state of enclosed and scholastic contemplation in which a
formal method of thought overshadows a creative one, and ill prepare social
Durkheim and the condition of modernity 71
individuals for a life in society who must ‘either get to grips with real objects or
else lose … [themselves] in the void’ (Durkheim, 1977: 207; see also 208, 206). In
other words, they are reflexive cultures in which the ‘gap’ for social questioning
closes over. In contrast, a triadic culture is a culture of detachment in which it is
‘a matter of acting and behaving in such a way that one externalises some
inner part of oneself ’ (Durkheim, 1977: 208). In it, history and the study of
language, and not only science, function together in a complementary way to
enable this to occur in a manner that also creates new patterns of meaning
and cultural surpluses. Given the centrality and importance attributed to the
dimension of triadic cultures for Durkheim’s notion of reflexivity, it is useful
to discuss each in turn, beginning with historical consciousness.
Durkheim’s commitment to historical knowledge is fuelled by his image of
the homo duplex, but in a more complex way than the moral functionalism of
his earlier work. In Durkheim’s view, historical knowledge should begin with
the complexity of human nature, and in the light of such complexity, an his-
torical perspective teaches about ‘the infinite variety of [its] potentialities’
(Durkheim, 1977: 335). In other words, an historical perspective relativises
one’s own perspective and becomes the basis for a critique of philosophies of
history. In this context, Durkheim momentarily steps outside his own social
evolutionism; from the perspective of historical consciousness, all societies
and all histories are worthy topics because they also ‘constitute manifestations
of the human spirit’, in and of themselves (Durkheim, 1977: 335). It thus
decentres the perception of the present.
As a complement to this, scientific culture – the second aspect of triadic
culture – generates a perspective that moves humankind beyond itself, but in
a different way from historical knowledge. According to Durkheim, science
deals with things. In this context, though, it is not the scientific objectivism
that is of interest, for Durkheim. Rather, for him, the ‘thingness’ of the world,
or the recognition of a world apart from the human one ‘causes [humankind]
to take cognisance of his/her dependent position in relation to the world
which surrounds him [or her]’ (Durkheim, 1977: 213). Thus, this time it is the
human perception of the world that is decentred. Moreover, as a mode of
thought, science, for Durkheim, is reasoning in action. While Durkheim’s
model for this is a deductivism inherited from the experimental method, his
point is that it is

logical thought … made up of specific conceptions capable of being for-

mulated by definitions which map the boundaries separating them from
related but different conceptions, and which, by means of such limitations,
avoid the mix-ups, the interpenetrations, all the symptoms of contamination
by illogicality whose consequence is confusion.
(Durkheim, 1977: 343–344; see also 342)

In other words, for Durkheim, a scientific perspective is reality directed and

discriminating, notwithstanding the method that he prioritises for this. In a
72 Political modernities
similar way, a linguistic perspective is also ‘outwardly’ directed, for Durkheim.
And here, it is not so much that words are collective representations, although
they do not exhaust what collective representations may be constituted through.5
From the vantage point of his human self-image, Durkheim argues that
language gives shape to thinking by not only externalising and presenting it
for others, but also by disrupting a solipsism. In the spirit of his qualified
Cartesianism, language assists in structuring ordered, logical thought without
which communication, and especially reflexive communication with others is
Moreover, the medieval university was no secluded world but one in which
debate was a very public activity that was once again fostered after its decline
at the end of the Roman period. As he says, in this instance against either
Aristotle or an imaginary practitioner of Aristotelian dialectic, that is, the
dialectic of Greek antiquity:

He often thinks up his own objections to his thesis. And he debates with
imaginary adversaries. But would not such a confrontation yield better
results if instead of being carried out in our own private speculations it
took place outside in the open and in full view of the public; if instead of
debating within ourselves against theoretical adversaries who can, after
all, only speak with the voice which we give them and consequently are
only capable of saying more or less what we want them to say according to
our own enthusiasms and preferences, we set ourselves to argue resolutely
against real flesh and blood adversaries; in other words, if in a public
debate, we came forward to champion our own view by crossing swords
with the defenders of a different opinion? Such a real life debate, does it
not constitute a much more appropriate method of revealing the true
power of resistance of opinions under discussion, and consequently their
relative value? … [D]ialectic is precisely the art of arguing cogently for
plausible propositions; and since debate forms an essential procedure in
the practice of this art it is essentially the art of debate. This view of
dialectic and debate was also the view that was held in the Middle Ages.
(Durkheim, 1977: 146–147)

The medieval university, then, provided the institutional setting for the
development and practice of a specific culture of reflexive detachment.
Durkheim’s model of triadic reflexive culture has been abstracted from his
historical study of medieval education and presented in formalistic terms in
order to highlight a particular model of reflexivity present in his work, and one,
so it is argued, that is implicitly present in his version of political modernity.
Nonetheless, Durkheim does locate the model of triadic culture in the context
of medieval educational thought from which the culture of modernity with its
scientism is demarcated.
However, is the triadic culture only a product of, and thus only relevant to
a study and appreciation of medieval life, or does it have a continuing and
Durkheim and the condition of modernity 73
broader relevance for our topic at hand? Can it be drawn on as a point of

Durkheim’s political modernity

There are some indications that Durkheim does draw on the image and
period of medieval triadic culture as a point of reference that indirectly
throws into relief his own portrait of political modernity. In other words,
medieval triadic culture, and the complexity of social and institutional life
located around the medieval universities that is indicated by it, becomes a
filter through which he addresses the more modern problems of the relations
between the nation, the citizen, public, reflexive culture and representative
democracy. In other words, and in the context of The Evolution of Educa-
tional Thought, it is not so much that the rise of a particular form of educa-
tional practice causes democracy, but that the universities provided a
cultural‒institutional model for the nature and structure of reflective thinking,
which, so Durkheim argues in Professional Ethics and Civic Morals, was
constitutive of the practice of politics, and which established a precondition
for political modernity. In other words, the medieval university with its triadic
reflexive culture and the practice of public debate was the model from which
Durkheim deployed his image of political modernity. By implication, Durkheim
makes both an historical connection and an homologous relation between the
universities and representative democracy. Over and above the much commented-
on guild and corporatist political structure that Durkheim develops, the
democratic institutions of the republican form of political modernity are as
important to representative democracy as the universities were to the reflexive
culture of the Middle Ages (Durkheim, 1964: xxx‒lix). They both promote
detached and deliberative thinking and transform a passive relation to the
world into an active one. As he states in Professional Ethics and Civic Morals
‘reflection alone makes possible the discovery of new and effective practices,
for it is only by reflection that the future can be anticipated. This is why
deliberative assemblies are becoming ever more widely accepted as an institution’
(Durkheim, 1992: 90, 80). Durkheim’s work on democracy does not emerge
as a theory of procedural democracy; it emerges instead as an unfinished
theoretical reflection concerning the self-reflexivity of society upon itself,
which moves it outside the industrial frame of reference.
This central insight concerning the self-reflexivity of society upon itself fuels
this interpretation, and, as such, it plays the key interpretive role. Moreover, its
political frame of reference, for Durkheim, is the complex relation between the
rights of the individual – more the collective representation of the individual –
and his or her relation to the state, that is, its institutional expression. The filter
through which Durkheim investigates the development of modern political
collective representations and their institutionalisation is a non-teleological image
of civilisation, which becomes the way, for Durkheim, of bringing political forms
and reflexivity together in terms of their historical development. In other
74 Political modernities
words, by drawing on an image of the civilisational history of the occident,
Durkheim is able to present an analysis of the formation of a reflexive culture
of civic sovereignty.6
Durkheim points to three traditions to which medieval and modern civic
sovereignty and their organisational forms are indebted―the Greek, Roman and
the Christian. This enables him to reconstruct the history of political modernity
in a way that demarcates a more ancient history from the medieval ones. For
Durkheim, the first historical period of civic sovereignty was constituted
through a pre-modern fusion of public religion, political community and civic
morals. In this pre-modern context, the identity of the social actor and the
identity and life of the political community, which in this instance was also a
sacred community, was invariably and internally related. As he says in Pro-
fessional Ethics and Civic Morals, ‘the destiny of the state was closely bound
up with the fate of the gods worshipped at its alters … To bring glory to the City
was the same as enhancing the glory of the gods of the City’ (Durkheim, 1992:
55). Hence, private concerns were relatively unimportant; rather what was
important was the identification of the social individual with the beliefs held
in common. ‘Absorbed in the mass of society, he [or she] meekly [gave] way to
its pressures and subordinated his [or her] lot to the destinies of collective
existence without any sense of sacrifice’ (Durkheim, 1992: 56).
However, Durkheim’s reading of political modernity is typified by an
increased detachment rather than fusion between the political community and
the social actor. To be sure, for him, this detachment should not result in either
the political anomie of the social actor from his/her political community, or his/
her domination by the political community in the form of the state. In other
words, for Durkheim, political modernity should not result in an unmediated
articulation of a more primary anthropological dualism. Rather, in his optimistic
view, political modernity is normatively constituted by a political heritage in
which two tendencies of fused subordination and anomic detachment have
been successfully addressed and overcome in ways that complement both social
connectedness and individual detachment. On the one side, the state (rather
than the political community as a polis) accumulates more and more areas of
‘responsibility’ under its jurisdiction, while, simultaneously, the individual, as
Durkheim notes in an apt formulation, ‘comes to acquire even wider rights
over his person and over the possessions to which he has title’ (Durkheim,
1992: 56). Durkheim argues that there is an historical convergence and affinity
between these two processes: ‘the stronger the state, the more the individual is
respected’ (Durkheim, 1992: 57).7
Durkheim reconstructs this aspect of political modernity ‒ its normative
horizon ‒ most clearly in his intervention in the Dreyfus affair entitled ‘Indi-
vidualism and the Intellectuals’. The crucial issue that Durkheim confronts
through his reconstruction is not individualism per se, but an active rather
than a passive or quietistically reflexive relation to the world. To be active,
according to Durkheim, the social individual must be seen as a bearer of
rights. Individualism, for Durkheim and in opposition to its utilitarian and
Durkheim and the condition of modernity 75
individualistic understanding, is this common ethos, constituted as a collective
representation, and historically tied to the development of the western political
form. Durkheim’s idea of individualism is actually a cluster of operative
ideals, moral beliefs and practices, or as he says, ‘a system of collective beliefs
and practices that have a special authority’ which function and are constituted
in an homologous way to that of religion (Durkheim, 1969: 25). Thus, indi-
vidualism is not a modern religion, for Durkheim; but it follows the same
structural principles of any form of the sacred. Politically, this is translated
into establishing the moral basis of individual rights, the limits of political
obligation, the legitimacy of authority and the expansion of liberties beyond
the negative rights to include economic and political justice. And so, for
Durkheim, the modern democratic state is a collective representation of rights.
Moreover, these collective representations of rights organise and make them a
reality, thus giving them a lasting moral and institutional existence. In this
sense, the idea of individualism functions as a beacon or signpost beyond the
idea of justice itself. It is a collective belief that informs the modern under-
standing and practice of ‘doing justice’. Rights are, for Durkheim, inseparable
from the understanding of what politics is.
However, Durkheim argues against the idea that right is a universal condition
of human existence or derives from ‘the moral nature that the social individual
is endowed with and thus determined by and is inviolable’ (Durkheim, 1969:
67). He argues that this formulation of universal, natural right inherited from
Kant not only simplifies the issue but also inverts it. According to Durkheim,
‘what lies at the base of individual right is not the notion of the individual as
he is, but the way in which society puts right into practice, looks upon it and
appraises it’ (Durkheim, 1969: 67). While rights emerge from a social context,
their universal horizon occurs in a context in which the person has been
universalised as a socially created horizon. Thus, to irrationalise this uni-
versalistic horizon is simultaneously to irrationalise the constitution of political
modernity itself. In this sense, the sovereign rights of the individual as well as
forms of political representation are values, that is, collective representational
ideals. Moreover, as ideals they are also historically created and as such are
sedimented as cultures or collective representations.
In the case of the latter, the ideals of modern democracy are, for him,
modern mythologies that have a similar structure to those of religious origin.
They constitute and orientate the self-understanding and self-representation
of the political culture of the modern West. If Durkheim’s references to Kant,
especially in ‘The Determination of Moral Facts’ and ‘Value Judgements and
Judgements of Reality’ (Durkheim, 1953, Sociology and Philosophy), are
taken as attempts by him to work through the issue of the practico‒political,
then two aspects of this come to the fore, which, for Durkheim are con-
stitutive to the condition of political modernity. These are the normative
horizon of political modernity, articulated by Durkheim, at least through the
idea of individualism, and its (political modernity’s) space for reflexivity and
its type of practice.
76 Political modernities
In more concrete terms, Durkheim’s analysis of political modernity can be
seen in terms of the institutionalisation of both the culture of reflexivity and
the collective representation of rights. To be sure, Durkheim’s conceptual
strategy can also be seen in the context of his ongoing critiques of the
malaise, crisis, and, for him, catastrophe of modern society, that is, its anomic
condition.8 Nonetheless, he addresses this anomic condition, politically. As
Lukes observes ‘Durkheim took democracy to be the ideal, and normal, form
of the state within a modern industrial society – that is, the form normally
most appropriate to its collective beliefs and sentiments’ (Lukes, 1987: 272).
In Professional Ethics and Civic Morals Durkheim gives an initial definition
of political society as one in which rulership is constituted from within. As
he says, it is ‘one formed by the coming together of a large number of secondary
social groups subject to the same authority which is not itself subject to any
superior authority’ (Durkheim, 1992: 45). In other words, and restating
Montesquieu’s model of democracy in The Spirit of Laws, political society is
that in which the principle of domination from without has been replaced by
the principle of the self-constitution of the community.
While the notion of a territorially bound unit – a nation state rather than a
patrimonial state or empire – is included in this very basic definition, it
remains provisional. Durkheim is more interested in positing a counter-model
to liberal democracy, which he sees as based on a principle of amorphous and
anomic individualism. Moreover, this counter-model, in his view, can no longer
rely on a model of negative freedoms that belong to the liberal one (Durkheim,
1969: 29). Rather, the model of political modernity that Durkheim has in mind,
and which we have seen in ‘Individualism and the Intellectuals’ but more fully
spelt out in Professional Ethics and Civic Morals, is one that embraces the
dimension of reflexivity. For him, a condition of reflexivity is important because
it is through this that any society, and especially a democratised political society,
can achieve increasing degrees of both self-transparency and self-consciousness
(Durkheim, 1992: 89).
He joins this concern with three others concerning politics – the relation
between civic sovereignty and the nation state, the status of professional
associations as key institutions of civic sovereignty, and rulership. In other
words, for Durkheim, the relation between civic sovereignty and the nation
state constitutes the field in which modern political intercourse is readily
entered into, and deliberation and a critical spirit are part of this intercourse.
The result of this relation and critical deliberations should be a harmonisa-
tion of competing interests and the possibility of social coordination. In this
context, Durkheim argues that it is professional associations, rather than
individuals that should be the point where mediation, harmonisation and
social coordination and integration occur (see the Preface to the second edition
of Durkheim, 1964).
He can, thus, turn to a third concern – the question of rulership. What
Lukes terms Durkheim’s liberalism is better viewed under the umbrella term
‘civic republicanism’ (Lukes, 1987: 338).9 Civic republicanism brings together
Durkheim and the condition of modernity 77
the political currents mentioned above with the specifically Durkheimian for-
mulation of collective representations. It refers to the idea of civic sovereignty,
which includes positive and negative rights and liberties (a version of political
liberalism), and democratic and representative forms of politics to which the
state, as a power institution, is subordinated. The state, in this sense, is not a
power centre, but the locus of rational reflection over political and social
issues through institutional forms, which have been created to facilitate this.
Durkheim further argues, ‘the state is a special organ whose responsibility it
is to work out certain representations which hold good for the collectivity.
These representations are distinguished from other collective representations
by their higher degree of consciousness and reflection’ (Durkheim, 1992: 80).
It is an ‘organ of social thought’ (like all other states), but one in which the
social thought is constituted through a notion of rights, which is meant, by
him, as an overriding principle of respect for persons through which ‘the
human person in general’ can be considered as sacred in the meaning described
above. In this way, the individual accrues the historically cumulated status of
a moral, even a religious absolute. Civic republicanism, thus, must have for
Durkheim an internal relation to the practice of publicity.
From this perspective, the state is civilised in that it becomes more aware
and conscious of its own decisions in the process of having to debate them. In
this sense, Durkheim takes the existence of parliamentary democracy seriously.
It is in the assemblies, councils and parliaments that deliberation and reflection
occur (Durkheim, 1992: 80). As he says

deliberation and reflection … are … all that goes on in the organ of

government … The debates in the assemblies [which he sees as a process
analogous to thought in the individual] have the precise object of keeping
minds very clear and forcing them to become aware of their motives that
sway them this way or that and to account for what they are doing …
They are the sole instruments that the collective has to prevent any action
that is unconsidered or automatic or blind.
(Durkheim, 1992: 79–80)

The assemblies are a vehicle, as well as a venue, for social communication by

a society about itself.10 And because of its communicative dimension, this
form of reflexivity must be open and public, that is, it must not be constituted
through segmental criteria. For Durkheim, secrecy and the activity of politics
through either deals or fiat is the enemy of republican democracy. For him, the
deliberations should be done in the full light of day and so that the debates
there may be so conducted as to be heard by all … In this [way] the ideas,
sentiments, decisions worked out within governmental organs do not remain
locked away there; this whole psychic life, so long as it frees itself, has a chain
of reactions throughout the country. Everyone is thus able to share in this
consciousness … and thus ask him/herself the questions those governing ask
themselves; everyone ponders them, or is able to (Durkheim, 1992: 81).
78 Political modernities
A deliberative, reflexive mode is more than simply a procedural one, and
indicates a society geared to critical and creative reflection. Institutionally it
encompasses parliaments, town hall and public meetings, as well as journals,
magazines and newspapers, which constitute the literary organs of and for
social thought. The literary public sphere, as part of the political public sphere
generally, for Durkheim, is an indicator of not only a pluralised society, but
also a reflexive one. Or to put it the other way round, the state is formed
through, and out of the arguments of civic sovereigns who embody and have
a reflexive relation to, rather than simply ‘represent’ the modern collective
representation of rights. In this sense, these modern political collective repre-
sentations are embodied, value-orientated arguments, the ground for which is
ultimately a social ontology.
Durkheim’s image of a reflexively open political modernity, where civic
republicanism subordinates the executive‒administrative dimensions of the
modern state, may appear to fly in the face of contemporary reality, and even the
reality of the history of political modernity itself. To be sure, his corporatist
option was a response to the political anomie that he witnessed in the formation
of both the executive‒administrative dimensions and the electoral politics of
liberal democracy. These same phenomena were commented on by Hegel in
his Philosophy of Right one hundred years earlier, and both Marx and Castoriadis
were also profoundly critical of them. In fact, if we were to take Hegel and
Castoriadis, rather than Durkheim (or Marx) at their word, in this instance,
then we would be witnessing the ‘end of history’, not really as the triumph of
liberal democracy with its free markets and free elections, but rather as the
flight of the republican owl of Minerva at the end of the long day of political
modernity. The short day, it has been argued, is now one where the executive
dimensions of the modern state assert themselves in the form of increasing
governance and surveillance, or where non-political and hence non-contestable
acts of violence occur in both national and international arenas. Castoriadis
would, in his own way, simply call this flight ‘the retreat from autonomy’
(Fukyama, 1992; Hardt and Negri, 2000; Castoriadis, 1997c).
Yet, perhaps these either optimistic or pessimistic portrayals of ‘the end of
history’ construct an overly one-sided picture. As Durkheim noted in his own
assessment of the formation of modern reflexive cultures, what we need to
understand is not the experience, but the complexity of the experience, not the
moment, but its history ‒ or in his terms its social evolution (Durkheim, 1977:
12). However, and in the wake of Castoriadis’s work, which, as mentioned at the
beginning of this study, is an implicit point of contact with that of Durkheim’s,
we have had enough of evolution. Instead, we are located in neither a negative
nor positive series of historical developments, but rather in their indetermi-
nations and contingencies ‒ not only in terms of their creations as social
forms, but also in terms of their directions and possibilities (Castoriadis,
1997c: 102). In this sense, and notwithstanding Castoriadis’s own pessimism,
civic republicanism remains a possibility for political modernity, just as the
executive‒administrative power of the modern state, or totalitarianism and
Durkheim and the condition of modernity 79
terror do. In the context of this complex contingency its loss is both possible
and tragic. Everything else is either hubris or barbarism.

1 This is contrast to those approaches that assume that Durkheim’s project was a
unified one, a view shared not only by Durkheim and Parsons, but also by many
interpreters after Parsons. See Parsons, 1968; Nisbet, 1976.
2 Castoriadis implicitly alludes to an affinity between his own project and Durkheim’s.
To be sure, if Durkheim fights a battle on two fronts against empirical monism and
idealist monism, then Castoriadis also wages his own contemporary war on two
other fronts apart from Marxism – one against hermeneutics and another against
structuralism. For him, hermeneutics, with its privileging of interpretation, circum-
scribes the issue of the origin of interpretations through its historicist and genealogical
emphasis. Structuralism, especially if Levi-Strauss’s work in this context is taken
as the benchmark, is criticised by Castoriadis for its reduction of human life to a
logical‒mathematical set of sequences in which ‘all human societies are only different
combinations of a small number of invariable elements’. In The Scope of Anthro-
pology, Levi-Strauss argues that these invariable elements are themselves biological
products of the function of the human brain. In an ironic twist, and through
Levi-Strauss’s implicit claim to be Durkheim’s (self-appointed) heir in ‘French
Sociology’, structuralism retreats from a theory of culture (as a defining characteristic
of the human animal) to a biologism that also carries many of the hallmarks of
Kant’s transcendental philosophy. Levi-Strauss’s study on Marcel Mauss is an
exception here and indicated that the problem of what Castoriadis terms ‘the
immanent unperceivable’ was present for Levi-Strauss also. See Castoriadis,
1997c: 102, 1987; Rundell, 1989: 5–24. See also Levi-Strauss, 1945, 1987.
3 This excess, which is also a topic for Heidegger and post-structuralism, points to the
concealed constitutive internality of socially produced meaning itself, and indicates
the difference, in ontological terms, between Durkheim’s project and Castoriadis’s.
Castoriadis terms this concealed constitutive internality ‘the immanent unpercei-
vable’ Castoriadis, 1997c: 102. The ‘immanent unperceivable’, or what he terms
social imaginary significations, refers to the creation and condition of meaning that
certainly cannot be reduced to a biological substrate, and is also irreducible to
history and figurations of power, notwithstanding their genealogical or stratifying
importance. For him, ‘the immanent unperceivable’ element created by society does
not exist in those other regions of being that are derived from logic, interpretation or
production/fabrication, that is, what he terms the ensemblist‒logical aspects of the
human being with its dimensions of legein (saying) and teukhein (doing). Rather, ‘the
immanent unperceivable’ is an ideality, which indicates that the signification is not
rigidly attached to a material support, but that it goes beyond it without ever being
able to do without it. It is this dimension of the immanent unperceived or social
imaginary significations that create language and institutions, and which the social
human being cannot do without. See also Castoriadis, 1997c: 3–18, 1987.
4 The third aspect that Lukes identifies is already present in Durkheim’s The Rules
or Sociological Method where social facts are such because of their generalisability
and capacity to act as social constraint (see Durkheim, 1966: 13).
5 According to Durkheim, collective representations can be constituted through non-
verbal forms of social action ‒ song, music, dance ‒ that take the form of cere-
monies. The important point, though, is that these occur within the framework of
sacred life. At a more abstract level of theorising, Durkheim is grappling with what
might be termed following Castoriadis’s work, the imaginary horizon of social and
collective life. See Durkheim, 1976; Castoriadis, 1987, 1997c.
80 Political modernities
6 As has been noted elsewhere, although Durkheim’s work contains only fragmen-
tary comments on the topic of civilisation, nonetheless, it emerges as a sub-theme
in his work, both in, and subsequent to, The Division of Labour in Society. In The
Evolution of Educational Thought, especially, civilisation emerges as a way of more
self-consciously reflecting on the relation between past and present in a manner
that does two things. On the one hand, it challenges the evolutionist assumption of
an underlying teleology or rationalisation by emphasising the dramatic re-figuration
and reorientation of pre-existing collective representations. Furthermore, in the
context of his complex formulation of collective representations, civilisations acquire
and create new representations as a result of interaction with a changing historical
context. Thus, civilisation is a metaphor through which Durkheim reconstructs the
history of the occident, in particular, in a way that recognises that its history ‘is
littered with a multitude of lamentable and unjustified triumphs, deaths and
defeats’ (Durkheim, 1977: 135). If this is the case, for Durkheim, then it functions,
on the other hand, as a determining hermeneutic perspective through which the
occident’s uneven history is reconstructed in a way that brings the past into a
relation of interpretive tension with the present which throws into relief both his
value orientation ‒ autonomy in the context of national (French) republican identity ‒
and his valued historical period. To cut a long and very complex story short, by
the end of the nineteenth century, and within the new academic disciplines of
sociology and anthropology, the concept of civilisation was utilised as a taxo-
nomic category that referred to the evolutionary development of societies to more
complex and differentiated ones. The works by Morgan, Engels and Spencer had
laid much of the groundwork for a sociological taxonomy of civilisations. As an
extended concept, civilisation came to refer to discrete social and territorial units
that included differentiations between the spheres of production, consumption and
exchange. Moreover, it also referred to the development of specialised institutions,
such as states and bureaucracies for the specialisation of power, cities for the
specialisation of trade and commerce, and temples for the specialisation of cultural
activity, often undertaken in the form of writing, by a specialist priestly cast.
While Durkheim’s Division of Labour in Society contributed to this taxonomic
approach to civilisational analysis in terms of a combined theory of functional
differentiation and societal evolution, a more nuanced image emerges in his later
work. See also Durkheim and Mauss, 1998 [1913]; Arnason, 1988; Rundell and
Mennell, 1998: 1–40.
7 Durkheim also singles out Rome as a paradigmatic case. The lively sense of respect
due to the person, first, was expressed and recognised in terms affirming the dignity
of the Roman citizen and, second, in the liberties that were its distinguishing juridical
feature. In Athens, according to Durkheim, individualism was both dispersed and
speculative, that is tied to philosophy, while in Christianity it was inward or other
worldly and again speculative, that is, tied to a philosophically impregnated
theology. Moreover, in Durkheim’s view, the political history of rights and indi-
vidualism is a specific one that belongs only to the terrain of the West; in Ancient
Egypt and in India individualism was almost completely absent. See also
Durkheim, 1992: 585.
8 Durkheim’s concern about the crisis of modern societies can be summed up in the
following thesis: ‘the modern crisis is caused by the destruction in the eighteenth
century of a complete layer of necessary solidarity.’ As Durkheim himself states in
the 1902 Preface to the second edition of The Social Division of Labour, and with
his characteristic organicism still present, ‘the absence of the corporative institutions
creates … in the organisation of a people like ours, a void whose importance it is
difficult to exaggerate. It is a whole system of organs necessary to the normal
functioning of a common life which is wanting. Such a constitutive lack is evidently
not a local evil, limited to a region of society; it is a malady totius substantiae
Durkheim and the condition of modernity 81
reflecting all the organism’. But, Durkheim’s interest in the guilds is symptomatic
of a broader and deeper set of problems. To put it slightly differently, the crisis of
solidarity indicates a crisis at the fault line between individual and society. The
cause of the crisis is a process of differentiation that simultaneously detaches and
frees the social individual from the overdetermining moral force and sanction of
the group, and yet, provides no central moral and ethical core for normative
coordination. As Durkheim had spelled out earlier in The Division of Labour in
Society, this general social crisis into which his model of politics itself is (re)
absorbed, as evidenced by the 1902 second preface to The Division of Labour,
manifests itself as three distinct particularisms―the particularism of the contract,
the particularism of corporative norms and ethics, and the particularism of econ-
omistically derived and interpreted individualism with its language and pattern of
action of self-interest, which he views as the most pernicious. In the first instance,
the nature of the contract itself becomes more specialised and relevant only to
specific sections of, in this case, industrial life. In the second instance, under the
conditions of specialisation each specialised area develops its own norms, rules and
code of conduct, the result of which, in his own terms, is ‘ a moral polymorphism’.
In the third instance, Durkheim argues that individualism becomes dysfunctional
and makes social life impossible because there are no other integrative functions
that replace the diminishing role of the conscience collective, the result of which is
a constant war of competing interests. Durkheim responds to this sense of crisis by
arguing that the professional associations offer the most appropriate bulwark against
utilitarian individualism. The occupational groups remain the closest institutional
nexus that combine both a normative orientation and institutional setting for
social individuals as they live heterogeneous, profane and everyday lives. In this
way, professional associations become the second ‘home’ of sociability. It is this
affective morality that grounds the corporations as collective, moral entities. The
occupational groups or corporations provide a model of integration through a very
specific form of sociability ‒ what might be termed moral intimacy. In so positing
the professional associations as a second ‘home’, and while simultaneously
acknowledging the inevitable and permanent nature of social conflict and the
dynamics of, and need for collective action, Durkheim argues that the principal aim
of professional groups is not to safeguard and defend collective interests. Rather,
their emphasis is placed on the moment of sociability. Durkheim argues from the
vantage point of his anthropological image of the human as homo duplex, that the
actor is a social actor only in as much as he or she belongs to society. See especially,
Durkheim’s 1902 Preface to the second edition of The Division of Labour in
Society (Durkheim, 1964) and Professional Ethics and Civic Morals (Durkheim,
1992). See also Steeman, 1995; Gane, 1992: 135–164.
9 Durkheim’s relation to socialism is also filtered through what can be termed his
‘civic republicanism’.
10 Durkheim argues that the professional associations are the electorates through
which civic republicanism represents itself. For him, the public sphere should not
be peopled by an amorphous mass who pursue their own interests in a quasi-
commercial way. Nor should they express unclear, diffuse and vague sentiments
and ideas. The public sphere is constituted through reflexive thinking, not opinion
and prejudice. Yet, Durkheim fears that the public sphere only devolves and
degenerates into a war zone of competing interests where individuals and classes
will articulate only particularistic interests from particularistic perspectives that are
unable to be breached and opened out. In his view professional associations should
be the ‘true electoral units’ because through them the amorphous mass can be
represented as an established group that has cohesion, permanence and a clear
identity. They choose the most competent and proficient person to mediate and
solve problems within and between corporations, as well as within the wider region
82 Political modernities
of the state. The assemblies or parliaments, then, are made up of delegates of the
corporations who represent the functional and specialised interests of their
corporation. In other words, in this form, in Durkheim’s view, the political com-
munity is not anomic and without identity. This essay should not be read as a
defence of Durkheim’s corporatism. Rather this chapter is an attempt to draw out
the reflexive nature of political modernity as its central and radicalisable
5 Democratic revolutions, power and ‘The
City’: Weber and political modernity

Multiple modernities: Times and places of revolutions

For Marx, the modern world is revolutionary. Its revolutionary nature is
derived from the sense of itself as a tempest, a constantly moving force or series
of forces that destroyed everything in its path allowing modernity to be built,
rebuilt and moulded anew until the final great revolution occurred which would
make world history post-revolutionary. In modernity, as Marx famously
remarks, everything that was once solid melted into air, everything that was
holy was profaned (Marx, 1972: 83).1 For Marx, in his more paradigmatic
moments and writings, the revolutionary nature of the modern period originated
from and is synonymous with the capitalisation of social forces. And yet, even
for Marx, capitalism was an umbrella concept that encapsulated a diverse
constellation of forces that, for him at least, seemingly buttressed and rein-
forced one another – industrialisation, the monetarisation or commodification
of social exchanges and the accumulation of these exchanges, the migration of
people from the countryside to the city, the development of mass means of
communication, and communicative infrastructure across spatial networks,
simultaneously viewed as the prerogative of newly formed or forming nation
states, and the world as a whole because capitalisation required the infrastructural
communicability of the entire world, beginning with the maritime revolution
and including the more recent revolutions in telecommunications. Today we
call this latter development globalisation. Nonetheless, for Marx, out of all of
these sites of ceaseless human activity the city remains the hub, the centre of
the maelstrom of activity. It is both the originator and magnet for such activity.
In this sense the city is both an empirical social place, as well as a metaphor for
the formation and circulation of modern forces, and it is referred to in both
ways throughout this chapter. For, Marx, for example, ‘the city’ is the whirlpool
of capitalist modernity.
Nonetheless, while Marx is preoccupied with conceptualising and portraying
the logic of this new, revolutionary form of capitalist accumulation, modernity
is also symptomatic and representative of at least three other modern and
revolutionary figurations that include aesthetic self-formation, democratisation
and the nation state in its own quest for nation building. It is, however, with
84 Political modernities
the nature of democracy that this study is predominantly concerned, especially
its republican current, which addresses the question of rulership by the many,
rather than its liberal one, which addresses the formation of rights and negative
freedoms in the context of struggles between state and civil society (Pocock,
1985: 37–50; Bohman, 2007:1–18).
Like Marx, Hannah Arendt also stresses the sense of tempestuous, ceaseless
activity as the hallmark of modernity in her study of its revolutionary impetus.
For her, the image and notion of revolution belongs to a cluster of terms that
identify it with novelty and beginnings. For her, though, these terms and the
restless activity that they invoke do not belong to modernity’s capitalistically
constituted economic dimension. Rather they are distinctly and irreducibly
political. As such, these clusters of revolutionary terms are, according to her,
conspicuously absent from their sixteenth-century Copernican origins, as well
as their seventeenth-century association with royal restoration, in England at
least. Both referred in some way to the circulation or restoration of order,
whether viewed as either a natural or historical necessity (Arendt, 1973: 42–43).
Rather, in her view, a shift of meaning occurred in the eighteenth century:

the fact that necessity as an inherent characteristic of history should survive

the modern break in the cycle of eternal recurrences and make its reap-
pearance in a movement that was essentially rectilinear … this fact owes
its existence not to theoretical speculation but to political experience and
the course of real events.
(Arendt, 1973: 55)

For Arendt, there are two paradigms for these real political events. One is con-
stituted and encapsulated by the American Revolution, especially its Jeffersonian
dimension, while the other is constituted by the French Revolution, especially
by its Jacobin circumscription. The cities, wards, municipal councils and
societies in which these revolutions took place and through which they were
constituted give credence, for Arendt, to the nature of action as a political
concept through which men and women construct new political forms and
arrangements. In each case, and notwithstanding their respective interpretations
by subsequent generations on the lookout for political change, the American
and French revolutions, in Arendt’s view, constituted a new sensibility:

that men [and women] began to be aware that a new beginning could be a
political phenomenon, that it could be the result of what men [and
women] had done and they could consciously set out to do. From then on
a ‘new continent’ and a ‘new man’ [and ‘new woman’] rising from this
were no longer needed to instil hope for a new order of things. The novus
ordo saeclorum was no longer a blessing given by the grand scheme and
design of Providence and novelty no longer the proud, and at the same
time, frightening possession of the few. When newness had reached the
market place, it became the beginning of a new story, started – though
‘The City’: Weber and political modernity 85
unwittingly ‒ by acting men [and women], to be enacted further, to be
augmented and spun out by their necessity.
(Arendt, 1973: 46–47)2

In this sense, there are two revolutions occurring in this ‘new’ revolutionary
period. One is anthropological, in which finitude and the recognition of the
impermanence of the human condition comes to the fore, while the other
paradigmatically portrayed for Arendt by the American Revolution is a politico-
democratic one. Neither takes their cue from an anthropology of labour and
the revolution of capital portrayed so critically yet passionately and sympatheti-
cally by Marx. For Arendt, revolution means to build the world anew politically,
in the context of the vicissitudes of human experience and irrespective of its
likelihood of success or failure (Arendt, 1973: 233–234). Notwithstanding her
more generalisable remarks concerning the modern meaning of revolution as a
ruptural event or moment that instigates the new, Arendt restricts its meaning
to the political‒democratic revolution. In this regard, this ‘new continent’ not
only has a specific place, the transatlantic configuration of North America
and France, but also a specific time, the eighteenth century.3
While it is beyond the scope of this chapter to open onto the issue of
Arendt’s singularisation of the concept of revolution to a political‒democratic
dimension, it does wish to question the temporal and spatial location and
privileging of this ‘new continent’.4 It wishes to do so by looking at the politico-
democratic revolutionary impetus, not from the vantage point of the forms of
political representation or institutional arrangements alone, but from the
vantage point of democracy as an experiment in the circulation of social power
in terms of its relative openness rather than closure.5 This is done in order to
highlight, rather than minimise, the revolutionary condition of democracy
and its putative ‘lost treasure’ (Arendt) of the autonomously constituted
public formation of and participation in the political. As we shall see, from each
of these spatial and temporal vantage points of the revolutionary character of
democracy Weber’s ‘The City’ becomes a work of renewed interest.

A longer kiss goodnight – political modernity

What is of interest in Weber’s ‘The City’ (Weber, 1978a) is that it looks at
democracy from the vantage point of its long history, not simply as an argument
that originates in the eighteenth century regarding the relation between civil
society and the state, in which the American and the French Revolutions are
viewed as paradigmatic (and includes the earlier English Revolution and
Locke’s responses to it). Rather, it is an argument that originates in and
around the image of the medieval and early renaissance city of the twelfth and
thirteenth centuries as a very particular power container and generator of a
democratic imaginary.6 By contrast Arendt’s own scepticism, nay dismissal, of
the medieval cities as bearers of a distinctly modern political imagination of
democratic revolution is striking (Arendt, 1973: 37–38). However, when
86 Political modernities
viewed from a longer historical perspective democracy is necessarily more
multidimensional with regards to an understanding of what its constitutive
dimensions might be. As Collins points out democracy at least in its received
terminology refers to a family of terms, which includes popular sovereignty,
equality, freedom and rights, and hence culminates or finds its expression in the
American and French Revolutions of the eighteenth century, and screens out,
for example, the Italian city states of the Renaissance, the German ‘Free cities’,
and the formation of the Dutch republic (1568–1584, a century before the
English Revolution). For him, ‘the Dutch republic was a bridge, like the Swiss
Federation, from the Medieval republics to the present’ (Collins, 1999: 143).
In Collins’s view, in order to capture a longer and more multidimensional
history of the democratic imaginary, three dimensions are required – each with
its own dynamic – which cut across the more conventional divide between civil
society and the state. The first dimension is – and here we can reverse the
order of Collins’s own presentation – the articulation of claims for political
rights and the formation of public spheres, which includes the freedom to
assemble, to express, articulate and publish opinions in an unencumbered and
uncensored way; freedom from arbitrary arrest and punishment; and freedom
of cultural expression, all of which are pluralistic, multidimensional and cen-
trifugal (Collins, 1999: 115). The second dimension is the extent of the franchise.
From this perspective, democracy looks to be a particularly recent phenomenon,
as up until the early part of the twentieth century the historical exclusions of
women, non-property owners, servants, slaves and indigenous populations
entailed its practice and interpretation, although not its contestation, in less
than universalistic terms (Collins, 1999: 115). The third dimension that Collins
emphasises is the degree of collegially shared power, which refers to forms of
rulership, i.e. ‘collegial power is shared by such institutions as councils involved
in collective decision-making, electoral bodies, assemblies and legislatures and
independent judiciaries. These are structures that disperse power among a
number of different actors or units’ (Collins, 1999: 114). These dimensions with
their own histories throw into relief the contingent and unstable nature of
modern forms of power and political association, and give rise to often incom-
mensurable political forms and forms of life. If anything, the incommensur-
ability and tension between the features that Collins points to is the hallmark of
political modernity. However, Collins places his emphasis on the third dimension
and from this perspective of collegiality especially, the longer history of democ-
racy takes on particular importance. What was once screened out – a longer
modern history of democracy – now enters the picture with fuller force. As he
notes, ‘the conventional breaking point between “medieval” and “early modern”
history is decidedly inconvenient’ (Collins, 1999: 126).

Weber’s ‘The City’ – another political modernity

It is precisely at this inconvenient point that Weber’s analysis of the medieval
city assumes significance in terms of the problem of political modernity’s
‘The City’: Weber and political modernity 87
space and time, and thus the narratives regarding its formation. When
Weber’s ‘The City’ is read from this perspective it suggests an analysis of the
formation of modern democracy that can be contained neither to one particular
originary moment, be viewed as a derivative feature of one of modernity’s other
dimensions, nor folded into a single meta-narrative regarding nation building.
No less significantly, Weber’s reconstructive and heuristic analysis of the
medieval city can also become a basis for a critique of his thesis concerning
the purposive rationalisation of the modern world as his own single, defining
meta-narrative of modernity. Weber’s text ‘The City’ gives us another Weber.
Weber’s image of political modernity, as it emerges in his argument in ‘The
City’ runs counter to his rationalisation thesis, as well as counter to much of
the contemporary sociological interpretations of this work (Turner, 1992;
Giddens, 1981).
In ‘The City’, Weber concentrates on two sets of arguments concerning the
city’s development in its modern social form. These sets of arguments concern,
first, the autocephalous condition of the modern city, in which a range of
autonomously instituted political, administrative and juridical forms emerge
against a background of patrimonial power determined by rank. These political,
administrative and juridical forms are centrifugal in nature. Second, they con-
cern the city’s cultural condition or cultural horizon, a horizon that remains,
nonetheless, a suppressed and underdeveloped feature of Weber’s analysis.
Together, they constituted for Weber the first truly modern revolution.
Let us begin at the beginning of Weber’s analysis. In Weber’s view the
development of cities, generally indicates a civilisational threshold in the form
of the development of settled urban centres. These urban centres became either
trade or merchant cities, consumer or producer ones, which construct their
own relations with the forms of patrimonial power and the countryside that
surrounded them. Minimally, they featured a market and a fortified garrison,
and the latter could become an administrative centre often subordinated to
forms of patrimonial power, at least in the worlds of antiquity and the non-West.
However, as Weber notes:

not every ‘city’ in the economic sense, nor every garrison whose inhabitants
have a special status in the political administrative sense, has in the past
constituted a ‘commune’. The city‒commune in the full meaning of the
word appeared as a mass phenomenon only in the Occident; the Near
East (Syria, Phoenicia and perhaps Mesopotamia) also knew it, but only as
a temporary structure … To develop into a city commune, a settlement had
to be of the non-agricultural-commercial type, at least to a relative extent,
and to be equipped with the following features: (1) a fortification; (2) a
market; (3) its own court of law and, at least in part, autonomous law; (4)
an associational structure and, connected therewith, (5) at least partial
autonomy and autocephaly, which includes administration by authorities
in whose appointment the burghers could in some form participate. In the
past such rights almost took the form of privileges of an ‘estate’; hence
88 Political modernities
the characteristic of the city in the political definition was the appearance
of a distinct ‘bourgeois’ estate.
(Weber, 1978a: 1226)

While the first two features that Weber indicates are characteristic of all city
forms, Weber points to three other characteristics that he views as important
for the formation of political modernity:

the special position of the Medieval city in the history of political devel-
opment does not, in the last analysis, derive from the essentially economic
interests between the urban burghers and the non-urban strata and their
economic life-styles. The crucial element was rather the general position
of the city within the total framework of the medieval political and status
(Weber, 1978a: 1339)

In other words, for Weber, it is not its ‘bourgeois’ characteristics that are
important here, but rather that the city space contests patrimonial forms of
power characteristic of pre-modern ranked societies, and in terms that do not
simply dissolve into or revolve around the capitalistic accumulation of wealth,
the functional division of labour, or, as yet, modern state formation. The
occidental medieval city has an imaginary horizon or value to which people
are drawn. It is a place where people can ‘ascend’ (his terminology) from
bondage to freedom. As he says, ‘city air makes one free (Stadtluft macht
frei)’ (Weber, 1978a: 1239). It is the place where one becomes a detached and
contingent stranger among other strangers, rather than either an outsider or
someone encircled in new patrimonial obligations, such as the master and
While he argues that this freedom can be purchased with money ‒ and here
money constitutes a new distanciated and depersonalised form of social
mediation, if we take Marx and Simmel as our reference point here ‒ however,
this is not the main issue. The dissolution of the bonds of seigniorial domination
became, for Weber, the revolutionary innovation of the occidental city, the
outcome of which was the disappearance of the status distinction between
the free and the unfree (Weber, 1978a: 1238–1239, 1343). Weber transposes
the notion of freedom into a sociological category in order to generate the
distinction between it and slavery as another sociology category pertaining to
patrimonial forms of power (Weber, 1978a: 1358–1359).
When taken together, an analysis emerges of the power relations or figurations
(Elias) between groups and the ‘structural’ dimensions of medieval democracy.
Although Weber is not constructing an overtly universalistically orientated
normative argument, nonetheless it is a background feature that is deployed
by him not only through the notion of freedom, but more so through his
notion of autonomy. It is this background feature or imaginary horizon that
points to an underdeveloped possibility in his work of positing a genealogical
‘The City’: Weber and political modernity 89
narrative concerning value rationalisation, rather than purposive rationalisation.
In other words, read closely, Weber’s study of the occidental city can be
interpreted as a reading of the non-teleologically structured long history of
political modernity in which autonomy, contingency and conflict are its
mobilising motives against his more dominant theme of bureaucratic state
formation. The medieval city provides an historical point of reference at which
a coalescence of forms of democratically interpreted power and its articulation
as a cultural imaginary occurs in a way that becomes identified as modern. It
is here that his chapters on the ‘Plebeian City’ and the contrasts that he
makes between ancient and medieval democracy gain greater prominence (in
contrast to Collins, who views the Venetian city as paradigmatic).7
In Weber’s view, the medieval city initiated the first modern democratic
revolutions. In his analysis of these revolutions of the medieval plebeian city,
Weber points to certain characteristic features that become constitutive of
political modernity. He emphasises the autocephalous and autonomously
constituted associational, political, juridical and administrative features of the
city, which are not simply formed in patrician and bourgeois or burgher
terms, but are themselves the result of a series of more or less open political
revolutions and figurations of power whose outcomes are neither stable nor
can be predetermined. Weber points to the formation of the city craft guilds
as a new form of association that achieved significant political power,
including juridical power that stood against the urban commune. The Italian
popolo or craft guilds were, for Weber, a political and not an economic form,
with their own officials, finances and military. In this sense they functioned, as
he says as ‘a state within a state’, or more precisely a state without a state,
and hence were the first revolutionary political associations that appeared in
the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, in Milan in 1198, Luca in 1203, Lodi in
1206, Pavia in 1208, Sienna in 1210, Verona in 1227 and Bologna in 1228.
One important aspect of the formation of these autonomous medieval
urban communities was that annual elections were instituted for officials who
held the office for only short periods of time. The highest official of the political
commune, termed the capitano del popolo, was also an elected paid official,
but selected from another city in order to open the circulation of power and
enable this official to be independent of local interests. The capitano del
popolo ‘was assisted by separate bodies composed of representatives from the
craft guilds who were elected by the city wards for short terms of office’. These
representatives claimed rights to protect, to contest decisions, to address pro-
posals, to legislate, and to participate in the decisions of the popolo (Weber,
1978a: 1302–1303).
Hence there were two centrifugal democratic movements. The first consisted
of the popolo as a form of corporate associationalism, which involved power
struggles between the guilds as a necessary condition, while the second con-
sisted in the existence of the craft guilds or associations, which were the basis
for electoral constituencies or ‘parties’, and, thus, themselves generated
representatives. In other words, the popolo became the basis for the self-image
90 Political modernities
of urban citizenship and rulership. Moreover, through the combination of
these movements autonomous legal and administrative magistracy developed,
which became one of the identifying markers of every medieval city commune
in Northern and Western Europe, notwithstanding, as Weber remarks, the
parallel development of the patrimonial state, which eventually will supplant
and subsume this aspect (Weber, 1978a: 1326–1328).
In other words, as Weber notes and Collins also suggests, this argument
concerning urban autonomy continues not only in the context of the Italian
Renaissance cities, but also in the north German ones, the Swiss federation,
and the Federal Union of The Netherlands into the late sixteenth and the
early seventeenth centuries.8 The German and Calvinist political theologian
Johannes Althussius continues this argument in his 1603 Politics Methodically
Set Forth and Illustrated with Sacred and Profane Principles, which went
through three editions, and which was especially influential in The Netherlands.
Althussius argues for a principle of federalism located in the idea of civic sover-
eignty, against the more centralising idea of juridical sovereignty formulated
at the same time by Jean Bodin in his Six Books of the Commonwealth, a
work on juridical sovereignty that became central to the self-understanding of
early modern European state formation, especially French Absolutism.
Althussius proposes and theorises a form of federalism in which the politically
organised units are constituted through cities. For Althussius, the polity is
composed not of individuals, but of cities and provinces, and it is in them that
the principle of civic republican sovereignty resides. These belong to the citizens,
who, in his terms, are symbiotically or extensively integrated through a variety
of forms of association. As he says:

Every city is able to establish statutes concerning those things that pertain
to the administration of its own matters, that belong to its trade and
profession, and that relate to the private functions of the community … Also
pertaining to this communication are the right to vote in the common
business and actions of managing and administering the community, and
the form and manner by which the city is ruled and governed according to
laws it approves and a magistrate that it constitutes with the consent of
the citizens. When … these common rights of the community are alienated,
the community ceases to exist.
(Althussius, 1965: 43–44)

In this sense, the federalist principle is one that encompasses the spatial and
territorial centrifugal diffusion of power throughout the polity.
For Althussius, the alienation, or what might be better termed the hetero-
nomisation of the autonomy of the city, occurs not so much through the
subsumption of the city to early modern imperial or Absolutist rule, which
itself is a development that runs in parallel to the city formations, especially if
France is taken as a paradigm that represents the formation of the modern
centripetal or centralising tendencies of the nation state. Rather, it occurs
‘The City’: Weber and political modernity 91
through the development of tyranny, which emerges from within the form of
the democratic circulation of power, and as he says ‘breaks up the orders and
estates, or impedes them in the performance of their duties, [and] exercises
absolute power or the plenitude of power in his administration and violates the
bonds and shatters the restraint by which human society has been maintained’
(Althussius, 1965: 186). Alternatively, tyranny can be imposed from without
when an external power, such as an imperialising Absolutist state, imposes an
administration against the laws and customs of the commonwealth (Althussius,
1965: 186).
Weber, too in his analysis of democracy alerts us to the ability of political
tyranny ‘to turn both the limits and the achievements of … democracy to [its]
advantage’ (Arnason, 1990b: 51). Weber’s analysis of tyranny suggests that it is
not a reversion to a pre-modern type of power. It has its own particular modern
hue, which is distinct from its pre-modern form. It is a one-sided appropriation
of the mobilisation of the category of urban citizenship as rulership, which at
the same time introduces an equally revolutionary innovation – the secular
personalisation of power – a feature that Althussius draws on.
Nonetheless, according to Weber’s account, tyranny in the Italian Renaissance
period often began with the election of the capitano for longer periods,
including for life, and was the outcome of the power struggles between com-
peting guilds or ‘parties’. The tyrannical form of politics increased the range
of legal or juridical power, both of which were initially narrow and limited in
terms of their scope and legality. In this context, the city’s constitution could
be used as a frame or outer shell that gave legitimacy to the tyrant (Weber,
1978a: 1315–1322). Weber points to two conditions that fostered the formation
of modern tyranny. The first condition was internal: the party in power feared
a conspiratorial drive for power by the party that was out of power. The party
in power thus acted in a way that closed off the circulation of power between
competing or rival groups. The second condition was fear of external threats.
This gave an increasing significance and central role to the tyrant as the
military commander of the city commune. The net result of these fears stopped
the circulation of democratic power and increased the range of illegitimate
legal power, since the city became, as Weber remarks, voluntarily subjected to
the command of the tyrant (Weber, 1978a: ibid).
Weber recognises that, in terms of an historical sociology of political moder-
nity, the medieval city was not a normative utopia. It was not an egalitarian
political form in terms of the history of franchise. Democratic participation
was not extended beyond those who actually used it as a form of power.
However, what makes Weber’s text so interesting is that, from the vantage
point of a cultural imaginary of democratic autonomy, Weber points to a
‘logic’ of a non-procedural politico-administrative form, once politics and
administration become opened to democratic power formation. Democratic
formation is, in Weber’s analysis, an expression of the more or less ‘peaceful’
power conflict between groups, rather than outcomes of war, armed conflict or
a territorialising and increasingly purposively organised state. The ‘problem’
92 Political modernities
with democracy as far as Weber is concerned is that it is a value rational form
that cannot be fully rationalised. As his analysis indicates it always has a
pragmatic and informal dimension that is revolutionary, that is, contingent,
and yet is also built up by convention over the years (Weber, 1978a: 1314).
However, Weber’s suspicion towards democracy, which is evident throughout
his analysis of the medieval city as well as his remarks on its form in Greek
antiquity, entails that there is a reluctance to extend his rationalisation thesis
in the direction of the articulation of values and cultural imaginaries. In this
context, Althussius’s work, connected to the north German city of Essen and
to The Netherlands, provided a different idea of ‘rationalisation’ than that
pertaining to purposive rationalisation. In some ways, and to put it more
strongly, Althussius’s work represents a lost opportunity, a different ‘Protestant
Ethic’ thesis that could have embraced the democratic and federal circulation
of power as a form of value rationalisation. Althussius followed in the foot-
steps of Calvin’s defensive federalism pertaining to the idea of self-contained
congregations, an idea that also found its way into the Swiss federal republics.
While Weber ultimately perceives religious world views as the form that value
rationality takes, his analysis and Althussius’s work points to a different
modern articulation of a value type that finds its expression in a federated
political autonomy.
In ‘The City’ Weber’s narrative concerning the rationalisation of purposive
rationality asserts itself. However, it is neither capitalistic entrepreneurialism
nor the patrimonial state that is its bearer, but Rome. For Weber, Rome
represents the invention of formal‒legal principles of jurisprudence. As his
remarks on the Roman Tribunate and the rational‒legal legitimacy given to it
indicate, the problem with democracy is that it is not conducive to purposive
rationalisation. In Weber’s historiographical reconstruction, the democratic
revolution of the medieval city is short-lived, and cannot push towards the
present, even as a model. The city ceases to be the site of the contingent,
unstable and non-teleologically directed circulation of democratic power, and
is subsumed to a logic of increasing procedural and purposive rationality,
which is co-joined with two modern images of juridical power and cognitive

Democracy and the problem of the contemporary circulation of power

The classical tradition in social theory engaged in a two-fold reduction of
modernity’s complexity in viewing it as synonymous with capitalism and
industrialisation, or as a structural conflict between the two, in which
democracy is seen as a derivative form. To be sure, in more recent social
theorising the introduction of the topic of the nation state has become a correc-
tive to these reductive accounts. However, even within this body of work
regarding the nation state, democracy remains subordinated to the accumu-
lation of power through increased juridification and bureaucratic surveillance.
In this sense, and curiously, Arendt agrees with Giddens’s interpretation of the
‘The City’: Weber and political modernity 93
formation of modern democracy, which required the existence of already
formed nation states (England and France), or ones in-the-making (America)
to act as power containers for the experiments in democracy, an existence
which for her either contained or defeated the democratic experiment (Giddens,
1985; Arendt, 1973: 247).9
However, we can separate this conjunction between nation state development
with its juridification and territorialisation, and democracy as the open-ended
articulation and circulation of power, and each can be viewed as two (but not
the only two) separate, competing, and at times intersecting dimensions of
modernity. In the context of this conceptual separation modern democracy
means more than the minimal requirement of a form of rulership that refers
to the rule of the many by the many, and which also involves ‘the continuing
responsiveness of the government to the preferences of its citizens considered
as political equals’, rather than as subordinates (Giddens, 1985: 201). If we
follow Weber here, and in a way that also restates Collins’s argument,
democracy has its own long history that ruptures closed and relatively closed
circulations of social power by initiating and institutionalising a different
order that opens the social circulation of power. This open order of power
includes the freedom to join organisations, freedom of expression, the right to
vote, where voting becomes the medium of political expression and transaction
in the same way that money is the medium of capitalist market transaction,10
eligibility for public office, elections to decide who holds positions of power as
well as limitations on the number of offices held and limitations on the tenure
of office in order to limit what Jefferson termed ‘elective despotism’ (Arendt,
1973: 238, 254). The democratic openness and circulation of power also
includes the right of political leaders and organisations to compete for support,
the right of political leaders and organisations to compete for votes, and the
formation of public spheres, not only as alternative sources of information,
but as spaces for ‘political will formation’ itself (Giddens, 1985: 201; Collins,
1999: 110–151). Moreover, the historical development of democratic forms
has not been static or prescriptive. Rather, it is interpretative, heuristic and
contestatory. As Bohman notes, ‘more often than not, democratic transfor-
mations bring with them new rights and innovative reinterpretations of old
ones’. This capacity for contestatory interpretation makes the so-called
democratic revolution of modernity a permanent possibility subject to reflexive
creations, breakthroughs and learning processes, even if the outcome cannot
be assured and modern tyrannies reside both within and outside it (Bohman,
2007: 161). Nonetheless, this capacity pluralises the dimensions that democracy
Moreover, and as has been suggested above with reference to the discussion
of Althussius’s work, this idea of the democratic circulation of power has
particular elective affinities with the idea of federal organisation of the polity
itself. As we have seen with reference to Althussius’s work, what makes federalism
unique as a form of governmentality is that it affords ‘special representation
to the constituent regions of a federation’ in the matter of decision-making
94 Political modernities
(King, 1982: 140). Accordingly, a federation may be defined as ‘a constitutional
system which instances a division between central and regional governments
where special or entrenched representation is accorded to the regions in the
decision-making procedures of the central government’ (King, 1982: 140). It
is thus a spatial conception of politics that might be termed following King, a
spatially conceived polyarchy, which has the following characteristics. First,
the basis for representation is territorial; second, this territorial representation
is two-tiered; third, the regional units are incorporated at least electorally into
the decision-making procedures of the national centre; and fourth, regional
territorial representation is a national ‘tradition’ (King, 1982: 143).
The spatial criteria, and indeed metaphor were drawn on in order to dovetail
federalism and democracy in terms of the spread of powers, powers that in
principle at least provide a limit to modern tyranny in their form of the pre-
sumption of juridified right and the formation of political oligarchies. Because
of these concerns, the territorial basis of representation is not the most crucial
issue here. Rather, again metaphorically, one can suggest a modern shift from
‘the medieval city’ to ‘the federal city’ in which political homogeneity is
broken up and power circulated throughout the city. For example, in Democracy
in America, de Tocqueville argues that the immanent trend towards the cen-
tralisation of the state in modern democratic polities is countered by a variety of
differentiated and independent public agencies. These agencies not only
include a separate legislature, executive and judiciary, but also an independent
press, intermediary associations and local government. De Tocqueville posits the
American federalist model as one that differentiates power both normatively,
through the constitution, and spatially, that is, regionally, through society as a
whole. Unlike the French centralist model that he contrasts it with, a feder-
alist model builds in a permanent tension between centrifugal and centripetal
dynamics of power (Tocqueville, 1990; Arendt, 1973: 253–255).
The spatial metaphor can also be deployed in order to dovetail federalism
and democracy on the basis that those located in those social and political
spaces are also active political agents in them. As has been noted, ‘the genius of
the United States founders of modern federalism was in finding an institutional
means of overcoming the tendency of democracy towards majority function,
and enabling democracy to be extended to a larger state’ (Galligan and Walsh,
1991: 198; Arendt, 1973: 164–165). In the ‘new continents’ of Australia,
Canada, post-war Germany, and more recently the experiments within the
European Union, as in the United States of America, federalism ‘has been a
major component in reinforcing decentralised and pluralist politics’ (Galligan
and Walsh, 1991: 198). The image of an open-ended autonomy between spatial
units emphasises a decentralising, yet interdependent, federalism, rather than
a centralist one (King, 1982; Galligan and Walsh, 1991).
This centrifugal movement represented by federalism is the basis for a
possible further radicalisation of democratic political institutions and their
cultures. There are two sets of issues here: the nature of the decentralisation of
powers and democratic forms, and the nature of the interdependencies of
‘The City’: Weber and political modernity 95
these powers and forms. This is not simply a question of ‘proper balance’, as
King seems to suggest in his discussion of a decentralised federalism in his
Federalism and Federation. Rather, it goes to the heart of images of modern
politics when confronted with the issues of cultural, social and political
diversity – what Tully terms ‘strange multiplicity’ or ‘diverse federalism’ (Tully,
1995) or, in Bohman’s terms, ‘republican federalism’ or ‘heterarchy’ (Bohman,
2007: 8, 162). Bohman, for example uses this term in order to highlight the
difficulties that the European Union faces in moving from a democratic form
that is confined to the conjunction of nation and polity (a national demos) to a
polity that is transnational in character, has no intrinsic national or democratic
‘subject’ qua ‘the People’ but must invent institutions that circulate political
power in open-ended ways. In discussing the possibility of federated, transna-
tional demoi two strands of our own argument concerning the long histories or
revolutions of democracy and federalism come together in ways that buttress
and extend each. Taking the European Union as his paradigm case for trans-
formations in contemporary democracy, Bohman argues that it is possible to
envisage a simultaneous change in both its vertical and horizontal arrange-
ments, the result of which would be that power could circulate throughout an
extended polity in a number of diverse ways. As he says in the context of his
complex argument, the outlines of which can only be alluded to here,

Federal institutions are … necessary not only to organise such a dis-

persed and diverse process, but also to create the multiple channels of
influence and communication that enable the deliberation across multiple
perspectives needed for a large and diverse polity to be peaceful and
democratic. The democratic legitimacy of these enabling and inter-
mediary institutions is thus more indirect, and depends upon the standards,
objectives and membership conditions that make the EU a polity with a
normative legal framework. In both dispersed and federal institutions,
testing and decision-making powers are separated more clearly than in
typical federal states.
(Bohman, 2007: 166)

The vertical arrangements refer to the capacity for legal and institutional
formation and testing of politics, policy and social questions through a multilevel
system of courts, committees and commissions, which includes the European
Court of Justice (Bohman, 2007: 164–165). These vertical arrangements are
embedded in an increasing set of horizontal ones that include not only larger
and more diverse public spheres as well as the transformation of parliamentary
representation from national principles, which replicate the corporatist feder-
alism proposed by Althussius, to cosmopolitan federalism, which enables all
residents throughout the EU to be eligible to vote and stand for office, rather
than just national citizens (Bohman, 2007: 162–165). In both arrangements a
value rationalisation, in the manner described above, comes into play – ‘city’
air continues to make one free and it is this freedom that is the horizon (or
96 Political modernities
imaginary), which is instituted as political, cosmopolitan and juridified claims
for participation and rulership, and not only rights. These claims are articu-
lated informally in public spheres from where they originate, formally in
constitutions, treaties and conventions, and are open to conflict, interpretation
and expansion.
It is here that the long history of the formation of democratic modernity,
and hence of Weber’s ‘The City’, becomes heuristically instructive. Although
the text is part of a study on non-legitimate domination in Economy and
Society (Weber, 1978a), its presentation of the circulation of power (rather
than of forms of corporate representation) that constituted the medieval
urban revolutions indicates the formation of institutional forms of democracy
that are spatially extensive, yet designed to resist longer-term monopolisation.
Moreover, when Weber’s insights are dovetailed with a federalist imagination,
other perspectives emerge. A cosmopolitan democratic federalism builds a
permanent tension between centrifugal and centripetal dynamics of powers
through the decentralisation of its politics, and thus generalises this tension
throughout all of society. Moreover, in both abstract and concrete ways, a
cosmopolitan democratic federalism can also mediate and provide limits to
the relations between contingent strangers who inhabit the worlds of modernity
and wield power within them.

1 I am indebted to Wayne Hudson and Ian Hunter for their comments and sugges-
tions during earlier versions of this chapter. See also the perennially exciting
Berman (1982) for an interpretation that emphasises Marx’s image of dynamic
2 Arendt insightfully notes that ‘the sad truth of the matter is that the French
Revolution which ended in disaster, has made world history, while the American
Revolution, so triumphantly successful has remained an event of little more than
local importance’ (Arendt, 1973: 56).
3 Arendt works with a restrictive notion and image of revolution because she
emphasises the condition of the zoon politikon, so thoroughly put forward by her
The Human Condition (Arendt, 1958). By so emphasising the zoon politikon she is
able to restrict the notion of revolution to the formation of political republics by a
citizenry, separating this image from the other images of violence, war and rupture that
the image of revolution came to mean under the banner of Marxism‒Leninism. To be
sure, Arendt understood the unique and self-constituting dimensions of the totalitar-
ianisms of Soviet-type societies and Nazism, yet resisted calling these revolu-
tionary, at least in the above context. Yet, the whole-scale reorganisation of these
respective societies gave to them a totalising dimension, which she wished to
emphasise under the term totalitarianism. Hence what was required, if we follow
this line of thinking, was not simply an ‘anti-totalitarian revolution’ (Morin, 1992),
but a democratic one, that for example, swept Eastern and Central Europe in 1989
(see Auer, 2004). Nonetheless, notwithstanding her terminological restriction the
‘revolutionary’ totalising character of totalitarianism is well explored and articu-
lated by her in Origins of Totalitarianism, as well as by subsequent works inspired
by it, even if critical of its conceptual framework. See for example Lefort, 2007;
Agnes Heller, 1987; and Arnason, 1998.
‘The City’: Weber and political modernity 97
4 The explicit point of reference for this chapter is the idea that modernity can only
be conceived as a figuration that has multiple and irreducible dimensions and cultural
horizons, although the anthropological revolution of self-instituted beginnings
informs each. In this context, the development of the generalised monetarisation
of social life, industrialisation, aesthetic self-expression, and nation-state formation
indicate different and separate dimensions, each with its own long history, and
which stand in tension with one another and with pre-existing social arrangements.
5 I am using the notion of power in the sense developed by Norbert Elias to mean
relatively open or closed figurations or chains of interdependence and conflict,
rather than in the Weberian sense of domination.
6 As indicated in Chapter 4, Durkheim makes a similar argument concerning the
long history of democratic formation, or for him modern reflexive forms, of which
the university is central.
7 We can leave to one side Weber’s analysis of the figuration of the nobility who
according to him are left only with negative privileges by becoming a politically
excluded group, as well as his remarks on democracy in Athens, Sparta and Rome.
8 This is notwithstanding the apparent failure of urban autonomy in Italy and
Germany, as opposed to Switzerland and The Netherlands, because of the power
and geographical reach of the Holy Roman and Hapsburg Empires.
9 Arendt dramatically states the fate of the republican current in the following way:
‘Only a few words need to be said about the sad end of these first organs of a
republic which never came into being. They were crushed by the central and
centralised government, not because they actually menaced it but because they
were indeed, by virtue of their existence, competitors for public power’ (Arendt
1973: 246). Marx and Engels make a similar observation in The Holy Family
(Marx and Engels, 1980).
10 In this context, whether the vote is an expression of a direct or representative
political form becomes a matter of important debate.
11 One will get different and competing versions of democracy depending on which
elements are emphasised. For example, liberal democracy emphasises rights and
some negative freedoms, especially the freedom from interference and the right
especially to private property, which becomes the major social bearer of modern
individualism. Social democracy emphasises the social and human cost of social
development and argues that there is an internal relation between democracy and
the redistribution of social wealth on the basis of claims for social justice. Civic or
republican democracy emphasises the role of the active, critical citizen who partici-
pates as a political actor in the affairs that concern him or her. Any social context or
organisation can be the site of democratic activity and not only the state.
Romantic democracy emphasises a communal, undifferentiated and direct parti-
cipatory model of decision making, whereas corporatist democracy argues that
representation springs not from the individual subject but the organisation or
group to which one belongs. See Murphy, 1990; Murphy, 2004b.
6 Autonomy, oligarchy, statesman:
Weber, Castoriadis and the fragility
of politics

The works of Max Weber and Cornelius Castoriadis offer an analysis of
political modernity that highlights conflicting models of power and the political,
and, more importantly, the fragility of democratic forms of politics. Weber’s The
City and Castoriadis’s study On Plato’s Statesman both elucidate a continual
confrontation and conflict between at least three different models of power
that have been bequeathed to modernity – the royal or stately-sovereign, the
oligarchic and the democratic. By way of an examination of Weber’s study on
medieval city states and the model of Athenian democracy drawn on by
Castoriadis, this chapter will discuss these issues from the vantage point of
[modern] constitutional republics in order to draw out the interrelation between
the circulation of power and the contingency of democratic political forms.
In Castoriadis’s terms the first two models of the royal-sovereign and the
oligarchic are heteronomous, while the democratic is more or less synonymous
with what he terms second-order autonomy.1 In contrast, Weber equates the
royal-sovereign form with patrimonialism, but it could also be seen as
encompassing the modern bureaucratic state because the principle of rulership
over subjects occurs in formal legally rational terms and is also equivalent to
legitimate domination. The oligarchic and the democratic, for Weber, are forms
of non-legitimate domination when they are found outside the realm of the
state, that is, for example, in the polois of Greek antiquity and the Renaissance
cities. This chapter will concentrate on Weber’s and Castoriadis’s respective
versions, interpretations and critiques of these models, especially if cities
rather than states are taken as paradigm cases for an analysis of not only the
past but also the present.2 Moreover, these two studies indicate that autonomy
and democracy are fragile ‘regimes’ (Castoriadis), that is, their creation, success
and longevity are indeterminate and contingent and there is no guarantee of
their perpetuation.
In order to draw out these themes, then, this chapter proceeds in three
parts: first, the central themes underlying the studies by Weber and Castoriadis
will be discussed in terms of the central notions of explicit power, the political
and politics. Second, Weber’s analysis of medieval city states will be
Weber, Castoriadis: The fragility of politics 99
investigated in terms of competing models of democratic breakthroughs,
corporatism, the circulation of power and the closure of politics; and finally,
Castoriadis’s study of Plato’s Statesman will draw out the creation of autonomy,
heteronomy and the perpetual conflict between open and closed social and
political imaginaries, and the consequences for democratic formations.

Explicit power, the political, politics

In the context of these opening remarks it is helpful to introduce a distinction
that Castoriadis puts forward between explicit power, the political and politics.
In Castoriadis’s view, explicit power is a functional necessity that legislates,
executes decisions, settles points of litigation and governs, and it occurs in
both state and non-state societies (Castoriadis, 1991: 143–174, 1997a: 1–18,
1997b: 361–417).3 In other words, it functions as a quasi ‘anthropological
universal’ in that explicit power is exercised in all societies. Although the
relationality of power is under-theorised in Castoriadis’s work, he makes an
assumption that power is a social relation or intersubjective form rather than
simply an imposition of something. In this context, there can be either asym-
metrical or symmetrical relations of explicit power that are co-constituted by
social imaginaries, although it is the latter that remains Castoriadis’s abiding
concern (Castoriadis, 1976–77: 3–42).4 Intersubjective or figurational relations
that are articulated through explicit power, and which construct patterns of
identity between ego and alter can be viewed as patterns of action in which a
dimension of reciprocating interaction is assumed. Explicit power occurs, for
example, in the personal relation between a master, his slaves, spouse or offspring
in the traditional household or oikos, as it does in the more functionally deter-
mined more modern setting between office holders where impersonal rules
determine hierarchies of power. Alternatively, explicit power may take the
form of a pattern of interaction in which the reciprocity is denied altogether,
the pure form is not necessarily the traditional household but the exterminist,
sacrificial, and especially the holocaustal one. Here cruelty, which denies the
existence of the other, rather than only explicit power, reigns.5
The political is everything that concerns this explicit power from the question
of access, its modes and dynamics, to the ways of managing and limiting it.
The political thus encompasses the ways in which forms and codes of access
are instituted through which explicit power might be wielded, for example in
courtly settings as much as democratic forms in which both the question of
access to explicit power as well as its dimensions might be altered and even
limited. As is well known, for Weber and Elias, the political enables explicit
power, including its deployment through physical force and violence, to be
monopolised, and for them the primary social institution that monopolises
explicit power is the state (Weber, 1970: 77–128; Elias, 2000). It is this mono-
polisation that gives the state – which they equate with the political – its
legitimacy. Moreover, in their view, as well as variants of historical materialism,
the political can also hold a monopoly over the forms and cultural patterns of
100 Political modernities
meaning and its referents, and because of this dimension of meaning power
and violence are not simply physically determined acts but culturally created and
imbedded ones. The political also attains legitimacy through its monopolisation
of cultural meaning – in other words, it sets the terms and the conditions of
the cultural field.
It is in the context of altering and thus limiting the political that Castoriadis
defines politics. Both explicit power and the political are present in disputes,
arguments, wins and losses but when politics is created three internal dimensions
also change. For Castoriadis, politics, or what he also terms autonomy, is tied
to the historically invented moments of reflexivity, which, more precisely,
concerns putting into question established institutions, and, thus, the nature,
organisation and exercise of explicit power and the political. In addition,
when subordinated or sublated to politics, explicit power and the political are
organised in an open way that entails that they are both instituted by the
social membership and circulate throughout the political body. More impor-
tantly, reflexivity, self-institution and circulation places limits on the exercise
of explicit power and the political. The implication here is that in the politics
of autonomous or autochthonous cities the political becomes contingent, or in
Castoriadis’s terms, indeterminate, that is, no longer reliant upon legitimation
based on the monopolisation of power and culture (Castoriadis, 1991: 143–176,
1997a: 12–17).
It is these aspects of the formation and self-institution of politics or autonomy,
the circulation of explicit power and the capacity for reflexivity or questioning
that are the particular foci here. Weber’s analysis of the Renaissance city
states in his largely neglected work The City, and Castoriadis’s On Plato’s
Statesman can be drawn on in order to elaborate contours, conflicts and tensions
between not only the royal and the republican, but also between the democratic
and the oligarchic. Even though this discussion moves between two different
levels of analysis – the sociological and the philosophical – it is possible to
suggest that similar analyses of explicit power, the political and politics can be
found in Weber’s and Castoriadis’s work. In Weber’s analysis these patterns
are analysed in terms of the way in which the urban burghers and guilds
usurp power from the royal sovereign and establish forms of autonomous rule
in the autochthonous worlds of the medieval cities. For Castoriadis, Plato’s
Statesman is instructive in that it portrays arguments that were used, and
continue to be used in different registers, that challenged the formation of
autonomy, even when it has been instituted as a social imaginary. In both
cases each writer notices both the indeterminacy of politics and its fragility.

Non-legitimate domination in the work of Max Weber – Open and

closed circulations of the political.
There is no doubt that for Castoriadis the work of Max Weber is a much
admired and much visited oeuvre. However, the Weber he visits, admires and
criticises is one that emphasises the meeting point between individual action
Weber, Castoriadis: The fragility of politics 101
and historical development in the types of social action that are overburdened
by neo-Kantian rationalism (Castoriadis, 1991: 47–59, 2014: 33–58).
However, if we take The City as our point of reference another Weber
emerges apart from the one concerned with formal‒legal rationality, purposive
or instrumental rationalisation, and the tension between teleological and con-
tingent visions of historical development. This text also represents a rupture
or a least an opening in Weber’s work concerning his observation and inter-
pretation of political power. As noted above, for him, the state-form of the
political and legitimacy go hand-in-hand. In this context and by contrast, the
city-form is a non-legitimate form of the political in a double sense, for Weber.
It is less significant as it stands outside state-formation and is, historically
speaking, for him, a parallel, yet idiosyncratic form of social organisation
mainly determined by the market and trade rather than the political. In
another sense, it is more significant for his historical sociology because it is a
rich setting in which he can explore the contours, vicissitudes and exercise of
explicit power in a context that exudes politics. Yet, for him, the occidental city
remains an enigma of politics because it resists absorption into his narrative
concerning occidental purposive rationalisation.
The City concerns one of Weber’s few, if only studies or meditations on the
formation of the political and politics between and within groups outside of
the state. These city-based groups constitute or ‘figurate’ the political in ways
that work from the position of closure and circumscription, thus limiting its
circulation, or its opening and thus its rupture.6 Suffice it to mention that for
Weber the contingent formation of the autochthonous occidental city involved
the following characteristics that come together, even though they had historically
existed separately in different cities throughout the world. These characteristics
are that urban landownership was always alienable rather than a right of inheri-
tance; city communities viewed themselves as associations that owned and
controlled property; and that this associationalism also entailed that the
occidental city began to view itself as a political and legal entity. Moreover,
this confraternal corporatisation of the city also dissolved clan ties and, in addi-
tion to the corporations or guilds, members of the occidental city joined it on an
individual basis as citizens, even though this may have been religiously mediated.
Finally, the city developed a legal and normative category of freedom that gave
people a new status as free citizens. Here the universality of Christianity pro-
vided a cultural framework for a secularising political interpretation, as
against the particularistic religion cults of the ancient cities. For Weber, all of
these developments were spontaneous rather than derived from or were
‘granted’ by royal-sovereign decree. In other words, the occidental cities were
revolutionary spaces of increasingly legal, political, bureaucratic‒professional
and militarily organised autonomy (Weber, 1978a: 1236–1262).
Weber’s analysis of ancient Greek city states and their comparisons with
Renaissance ones will be left to one side as it is the latter that are of primary
interest here, especially his analysis of the patrician and plebeian city states.7
For Weber, the patrician city states, for example Venice, represent a prime
102 Political modernities
example of oligarchic republican power, while the plebeian ones, for example
Sienna, represent the rupture of a closed circulation of power, and the formation
of an open form. Each of these republican forms, though, is, in Weber’s analysis,
a spontaneous political formation not reliant on, nor derived from that of the
(patrimonial) state (Weber, 1978a: 1250; Martines, 1979).
Let us begin with Weber’s analysis of Venice.
For Weber, Venice is noteworthy for many reasons. It represents the formation
of a thalassic or sea-based trading empire that, like the Athenian one, was
city-based, rather than formed around the resources of a patrimonial state.
Yet, unlike the Athenian one, its revolutionary character, as Weber portrays
it, was one that concerned the oligarchic monopolisation of Venice by a guild
patriciate. As Weber notes, ‘the Venetian empire, extending over ever larger
mainland territories [and sea routes] and increasingly based on mercenary
armies, presents an especially pure and extreme case of the development of a
patrician city’ (Weber, 1978a: 1272).
Beginning in the ninth century the formation of the Venetian republican
oligarchy involved struggles concerning the inheritability or otherwise of a city
kingship, the urban nobility and the church. The outcome of these struggles was,
as Weber notes, the domination of the urban nobility by the guild patriciate that
began under ‘rather democratic legal means’ (Weber, 1978a: 1269). The
struggle resulted in the demotion of the doge ‘to the status of a strictly controlled
salaried official hemmed in by obstructive court ceremonials, and socially
reduced him to a primus inter peres in the corporation of the nobleman
(Weber, 1978a: 1269). In Weber’s view, though, the thalassic context is crucial –
the financial burden of imperial trading policy, which also included military
power, fell to the purview of the city commune and not the prince (or doge).
Thus, as Weber points out, it was in the hands of the patrician ruled city of
Venice that monetary wealth and political power came to be concentrated
(Weber, 1978a: 1270). ‘The nobility was forced to enrol in guilds if it wanted
to participate in the city government … [The] burgher remained a guild
member even if he was no longer an active entrepreneur’ (Weber, 1978a: 1294).
The basic struggles, though, were not economic, but political through the com-
petition over electoral constituencies and the form that the medieval oligarchic
corporatism took. As Weber again points out, ‘the increasing power of the craft
guilds is shown by the growing dependency of all urban citizenship rights on
membership of one of the occupational associations’ (Weber, 1978a: 1294). In
other words, the Renaissance oligarchic republican city was constituted
through corporate or guild status groups (Weber, 1978a: 1296).
This concentration of explicit power and the political in a corporatistically
mediated oligarchic structure, and in contrast to the thrust of Weber’s more
economically orientated analysis, resulted in a gradual series of reductions
and closures of the political along the following lines:

the de facto disenfranchisement of the assembly of landowners … the

nomination of the doge by a small electoral college of nobili, the defacto
Weber, Castoriadis: The fragility of politics 103
limitation of the selection of officials to families considered eligible for
council seats, and also the final formal closure of their list.
(Weber, 1978a: 1271)8

As far as Weber is concerned, these series of closures resulted in the forma-

tion of an oligarchically structured republic by an urban patriciate that tightly
controlled political and economic life. It is also worth following Weber closely
here too, for this new urban patriciate with its organisational form accomplished
an administrative revolution along the following lines. It involved the competi-
tive separation of powers, whereby administrative, military and judicial power
were separated yet competed with one another. However, even though these
offices competed, they were always in the hands of members of the urban
patriciate, and tenure of these offices was short term and overseen by admin-
istrative officials. Another mechanism of control was also instituted that had
long-lasting consequences – a political court of inquisition was created, which
turned into a permanent agency with jurisdiction over political offences. This
political court

ultimately supervised the entire political and personal conduct of the

nobili, not infrequently annulled decisions of the ‘Great Council’, and
altogether acquired a kind of tribunition power, the exercise of which in a
swift and secret procedure secured it paramount authority in the commune.
(Weber, 1978a: 1272)

For Weber, and because of these complex and interlocking forms of closure,
the real revolution of the Renaissance occurred in the plebeian cities where
‘the rule of the patriciate was broken’ (Weber, 1978a: 1301). In other words,
medieval cities such as Milan, Sienna and Luca initiated the first modern
democratic revolutions.9 In his analysis of these revolutions of the medieval
plebeian city, Weber points to certain characteristic features that become
constitutive of politics in the Castoriadian sense introduced above. In other
words, they opened the political to experiments in democratic self-institution.
On one level, a type of democratisation occurred that, while still corporatist,
extended the representative basis of the guilds from the patriciate to include
handicraft workers. According to him, in an analysis that has striking affinities
with Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, the entire development
of the popolo was initially orientated towards an organised protection of
the interests of the popolani before the courts, corporations and agencies of the
commune in the face of ‘threats, insults and the rule of the cudgel. As a rule
the movement was triggered by the often far-reaching denial of legal rights to
commoners’ (Weber, 1978a: 1307). Weber points to the formation of the city
craft guilds as a new form of association that achieved significant political
power that stood against the urban commune. These craft guilds became the
significant basis for corporatist democratisation. For example, no decisions
could be taken by the city councils unless guild representatives were present.
104 Political modernities
This representation became either a permanent feature or at least occurred
when important matters were to be discussed. Moreover, according to Weber, this
democratisation was also defensive in that the city guilds functioned as a bulwark
against the judicial activity of the councils (Weber, 1978a: 1301–1302).
However, it was more than defensive democratisation that occurred. Weber
emphasises the autocephalous and autonomously constituted associational,
political, juridical and administrative features of the city, which are not simply
formed in patrician and bourgeois or burgher terms, but are themselves the
result of a series of more or less open political revolutions and figurations of
power whose outcomes are neither stable nor could be predetermined. The
Italian craft guilds or popolo were, for Weber, a political and not an economic
form, with their own officials, finances and military. In this sense they functioned,
as he says, as ‘a state within a state’, or more precisely as ‘the first deliberately
non-legitimate and revolutionary political association’ (Weber, 1978a: 1302).
Within the self-institution of politics, explicit power began to circulate and
become self-limiting. In terms of the latter, one important aspect of the forma-
tion of these autonomous medieval urban communities was that annual elections
were instituted for officials who held the office for only short periods of time.
The highest official of the political commune, termed the capitano del popolo,
was also an elected paid official, but selected from another city in order to open
the circulation of power and enable this official to be independent of local
interests. While officially he stood below the podesta or travelling magistrate,
nonetheless he became an official of the commune, participating in its political
and juridical life (Weber, 1978a: 1303). In addition, explicit power also circulated
within the city commune. The capitano del popolo ‘was assisted by separate
bodies composed of representatives from the craft guilds who were elected by the
city wards for short terms of office’. These representatives claimed rights to
protect, to contest decisions, to address proposals, to legislate, and to participate
in the decisions of the popolo (Weber, 1978a: 1302–1303).
Hence there were two movements through which politics came to be self-
instituted. The first consisted of the popolo as a form of corporate associa-
tionalism, which involved power struggles between the guilds as a necessary
condition. As Weber notes, ‘the successes of the popolo were not achieved
without violent and often long-drawn out struggle’ with its tactics of inclu-
sions of the urban elite and the so-called ‘lower guilds’ into the extended
corporatist arrangements, and exclusions of the country nobility, peasantry
and urban workers (Weber, 1978a: 1306). A second movement consisted of the
existence of the craft guilds or associations, which were the basis for electoral
constituencies or ‘parties’, and thus themselves generated representatives. In
other words, the popolo became the basis for the self-image of urban citizenry
who at times participated in violent political ructions, and now became
peaceful, civilised and cultured. Urban rulership also became increasingly
autonomous, that is was instituted outside the orbit of the patrimonial state.
Its autonomy was instituted, as indicated above, through elections, including
challenges to the franchise, and the introduction to limits on office-holding,
Weber, Castoriadis: The fragility of politics 105
taxing autonomy, which also dovetailed with the control of markets and trade,
especially when these were tied to expansionist policies. Moreover, through the
combination of these movements autonomous legal and administrative
magistracy developed, which became one of the identifying markers of every
medieval city commune in Northern and Western Europe, notwithstanding,
as Weber remarks, the parallel development of the patrimonial bureaucratic
state, which eventually supplanted and subsumed the political dimension of
the city (Weber, 1978a: 1323–1328).
In the end, for Weber, closed forms of the political won out, and these were
instituted from an unexpected quarter – from within. This is notwithstanding
a parallel history of the bureaucratic state that is occurring in and around
these occidental cities, a history that would in the long term subsume them.
In his analysis of plebeian democracy Weber points to forms of political
tyranny that developed and learnt much from its achievements, took advan-
tage of them and used them for its own purposes, thus undermining the
limitations that democracy had, itself, put into place (Arnason, 1990a: 42).
His analysis of tyranny suggests that it is not a reversion to a pre-modern
type of the political. It has its own particular modern hue, which is distinct
from its pre-modern form. It is a one-sided appropriation of the mobilisation
of the category of urban, republican citizenship as rulership, which at
the same time introduces an equally revolutionary innovation – the secular
personalisation of explicit power.
In this context and according to Weber’s account, politics became subject to
the dictates of a closure determined by a form of the political that began as a
series of compromises between, and in the full light of day of its participants.
Tyranny in the Italian Renaissance period often began with the election of the
capitano for longer periods, including for life, and was the outcome of the
power struggles between competing guilds or ‘parties’. The tyrannical form of
the political, which meant that politics disappeared, increased the range of
legal or juridical power, both of which were initially narrow and limited in
terms of their scope and legality. In this context, the city’s constitution could
be used as a frame or outer shell that gave legitimacy to the tyrant. Weber
points to two conditions that fostered the formation of modern tyranny. The
first condition was internal: the party in power feared a conspiratorial drive
for power by the party that was out of power. The party in power thus acted
in a way that closed off the circulation of power between competing or rival
groups. The second condition was fear of external threats. This gave an
increasing significance and central role to the tyrant as the military commander
of the city commune. The net result of these fears stopped the circulation of
democratic power and increased the range of illegitimate legal power, since
the city became, as Weber remarks, voluntarily subjected to the command of
the tyrant (Weber, 1978a: 1315–1322).
In addition, the closed oligarchic Venetian world also created its own version
of modern tyranny, the political court. As indicated above, the political court
was tyrannous towards those within the closed world of the political, but
106 Political modernities
popular with those outside it, as it acted as a court of appeal – a court of
judgements. The institution of the podesta or travelling magistracy created
during this period, which was the bearer of rational law inherited from the
Romans, and with trained officials, was another such court. Yet it was absent
in Venice because Venice had successfully closed itself to outsiders (Weber,
1978a: 1273–1276). This double-sided feature of tyranny was to reappear in
the heteronomous world of the party-system in its totalitarian form in our
own contemporary modernity.
For Weber, though, one of the major problems with politics is its indetermi-
nacy and this also gives it a certain fragility. The ‘problem’ with democracy as
far as Weber is concerned is that it is a value rational form that cannot be
fully rationalised.10 As his analysis indicates it always has a pragmatic and
informal dimension that is revolutionary, that is, contingent, and yet is also
built up by convention over the years (Weber, 1978a: 1314). Its dangers are
instructive for Weber in another way. It is not a tragic regime, but an immature
one. By the end of The City, Weber’s narrative concerning the rationalisation
of purposive rationality asserts itself. Thus, it is neither capitalistic entrepre-
neurialism nor the patrimonial state that is the bearer of maturity, of modernity,
but Rome and by extension a post-Bismarckian parliamentary system of the
political peopled by vocational politicians.11 For Weber, as his other writings
suggest, the politics of modernity should be subsumed into a logic of
increasing procedural and purposive rationality, and co-joined with two other
modern images of juridical power and cognitive mastery. For him, it protects
us against the tyrannies of the new capitanos and their wish to revolutionise
the state from above at the expense of the plurality of modernity itself and
the plurality and participation of its actors, irrespective of the form that the
participation takes. He has a point.

On Plato’s Statesman: Castoriadis, reflexive heteronomy and the

challenge to politics
If Weber notices that the exercise of explicit power by the guilds in the
Renaissance cities introduces closure as a matter of course into the way of
doing political business, then what does Castoriadis notice about Plato’s
assessment of and recommendation for the Athenian polis? The question that
I will pursue is not how Castoriadis responds (or may not have responded) to
Weber’s highly critical analysis of Greek antiquity and its political forms,
especially that of politics, but rather what he also notices about Greek politics
that has deep affinities with Weber’s analysis of the Renaissance city states.12
In addition Castoriadis listens to Plato’s dialogues with the acute hearing of
someone who not only has to, but also wants to listen – to dialogues that
appear to be straightforward in their syllogisms, have their insights and ‘nuggets’,
but are tricky, have their traps, interstices and openings for creative inter-
pretation and critique (Castoriadis, 2002: 3, 7, 53–54).13 And it is for these
traps, interstices and openings that we will be listening with Castoriadis. This
Weber, Castoriadis: The fragility of politics 107
is what makes his On Plato’s Statesman such an instructive text, and one that
one wants to spend time with again and again.
However, Castoriadis will come to different conclusions from Weber. If, for
Weber, ‘autonomy’ means a history of politics that is lost, not because it is a
treasure, but because it borders on immaturity, like the Greek version, then for
Castoriadis autonomy means quite the opposite – maturity.14 It is a maturity
that is indeterminately self-created, yet defeated by the weight of a counter-
tradition of ontological determination that is given political voice in Plato’s
work. His dialogue The Statesman is more than a representative text for
Castoriadis. Plato’s Statesman not so much offers, but creates arguments
against indetermination, against autonomous creation. In this sense, too, On
Plato’s Statesman is also the summation of Castoriadis’s long-standing
engagement with the Greek tradition.
Let us begin our discussion of Castoriadis On Plato’s Statesman by extending
the remarks made above on Castoriadis’s notion of politics or autonomy,
which as is well known, he contrasts with heteronomy. Castoriadis makes a
fundamental ontological claim: ‘society is a form of self-creation’. Nonetheless,
he argues that the type of creation through which societies are instituted, his-
torically speaking, is usually heteronomous, that is occulted, non-transparent
and divorced from itself.

In heteronomous societies … we find institutionally established and

sanctioned, the representation of a source of the instituting of society
which can only be found outside of this society: among the gods, in God,
among the ancestors, in the laws of Nature, in the laws of Reason, in the
laws of History.
(Castoriadis, 1991: 133; Rundell, 1989: 15–16)

Alternatively, by autonomy, Castoriadis means the capacity of a social mem-

bership to create its own law. Or, more accurately, it is better to refer to this
autonomy as second-order reflexive autonomy in order to distinguish it from
an under-appreciated ‘liberal democracy’ and, more importantly, his primary
ontological claim of the work of human magmatic imaginary creation, or
first-order autonomy. Like Arendt, Castoriadis argues that autonomous
society, philosophy and politics emerge together. They are inseparable. He
argues that ‘whenever there is a breakdown of instituted heteronomy the
autonomous individual and the autonomous collectivity appear simultaneously.
More precisely the political idea and the political question of the autonomy
of the individual and the collectivity appear’ (Castoriadis, 1980: 93). For him,
this manifests itself by the coming together of persons as free political actors
to participate in the various sources of explicit power. Once this occurs,
societies become essentially open, they are instituted by the social actors
themselves, who become critically and publicly orientated and situated, and
make politics. In this context, the questions: ‘What is law?’ ‘What is justice?’
‘What is politics?’ always remain open, and it is this that also creates
108 Political modernities
transparency. There is always ‘the socially real possibility of questioning the
law and its foundations’ (Castoriadis, 1980: 104).
This making and opening of politics is part of the dimension of what Casto-
riadis calls (second-order) autonomous self-creation. For Castoriadis, second-
order reflexive autonomy is an invention of the Greeks, and it is an idea that
is rediscovered or reinvented during the course of the Renaissance cities and
especially during the American and French revolutions. It can be summed up
in the following remark:

To participate in the management of an intangible state of things, to be

autonomous, means to give oneself one’s own law, i.e. common laws, both
formal and informal, of institutions. Participation in power is participation
in instituting power belonging equally with others to an explicitly self-
instituting collectivity. Liberty in an autonomous society is expressed in
two fundamental laws: no implementation without egalitarian participation
in decision-making … An autonomous collectivity has as its own motto:
we are those whose law is to give ourselves our own law … At the same
time this implies an education in the deepest sense, a paideia forming
individuals who have the real possibility to think for themselves.
(Castoriadis, 1980: 97–98)

Castoriadis’s claim for second-order autonomy, though, is more than simply a

political claim. It is a thesis that rests on his re-conceptualisation of a philoso-
phical anthropology that works with the idea of ontological self-creation and
through his double formulations of magma and social imaginary significa-
tions. But let us concentrate, in this chapter at least, on the political claim and
what arguments were raised against it by the weighty counter-tradition of
determinacy (see Castoriadis, 1987; Rundell, 1989; Klooger, 2009; Adams,
2011; Ciaramelli, 1998: 127–140).
Let us notice as Castoriadis does, how reflexivity, self-institution and the
transparent circulation of explicit power are challenged by another model that is
asserted and articulated by Plato.15 There are many aspects of Plato’s thinking in
this particular dialogue that Castoriadis notices and listens to: his coolness
towards Athens (Castoriadis, 2002: 4); the date and historical context of The
Statesman (Castoriadis, 2002: 11–14); the movement of his philosophical
thought as well as its developmental sequence (Castoriadis, 2002: 8–19); the
‘quirkiness’ of The Statesman (Castoriadis, 2002: 21); of two (incorrect) defi-
nitions of the statesman (the pastor and the weaver), three digressions and
eight incidental points. For Castoriadis, Plato’s Sophist and The Statesman
represent creative work at its best, ‘where new points of view are put in place’
(Castoriadis, 2002: 16). The aporias in the works are real and there is a pre-
occupation with ‘the mixed and no longer pure ideas’ (Castoriadis, 2002: 16). In
other words, what interests and intrigues Castoriadis ‘is the content and the
developmental process of Platonic thought in all of its complexity’ (Castoriadis,
2002: 14).16 There is more to Plato, especially this part of his oeuvre, than his
Weber, Castoriadis: The fragility of politics 109
coldness towards democracy, his invention of the royal man and his metaphysics.
In Castoriadis’s view we witness a second creation of philosophy as constant
‘interrogativity’, ‘the constant re-opening of the question, the fact that in a sense,
constantly, the result matters less than the path that allowed one to get there.
Once posed, the question brings up another question, which touches off a
third one, and so on’ (Castoriadis, 2002: 49). In this sense we witness, as we
have with Weber’s The City, the full range of Plato’s creative imaginary at
work in The Statesman where he labours with and against the constraints that
he has incorporated, and where the digressions, detours and irresolvable
paradoxes in the text are as important as the formal structure of the work
(Castoriadis, 2002: 167).17
In other words, Castoriadis observes that, in this dimension of Plato’s thought,
there is no statement, no place where one can lie down and rest. As Castoriadis
states, ‘the difference between the pre-Socratics and Plato – Socrates himself
being an enigma – is that for the pre-Socratics there are statements upon
which one can set or rest the truth. Now for Plato, there are and there are not’.
(Castoriadis, 2002: 50). He introduces into philosophy an endless movement,
the coexistence of opposites, elements and a complexion that inspires and pro-
pels questions. And these questions are aimed at fundamental philosophical
problems concerning being and the creation of philosophical reasoning. ‘It’s a
kind of reasoning that asks itself whether it’s right to posit such and such
premises’ (Castoriadis, 2002: 52). Plato, in his second creation of philosophy
and his commitment to ‘interrogativity’, and in answer to the Eleatic School
and Zeno in particular, will say ‘no’ to fixity, to the one, to the absolute, to
immobility, to non-movement and to non-alteration (Castoriadis, 2002: 54).
In among Castoriadis’s enthusiasm and critical dissection of Plato’s text,
there are three aspects of note that we will concentrate on in order to highlight
his own concerns regarding the fate of politics and the parallel articulation of
fixity in Plato’s work. These aspects are what he reconstructs as Plato’s three
digressions. The first digression concerns Plato’s arguments against inde-
terminacy and the reinvention of history qua determinacy, that is, Plato’s
mythic story about the reign of Cronus. The second digression Castoriadis
concentrates on or reconstructs concerns the forms of regimes of the political
and their evaluation, while the third digression – for Castoriadis the central
one – concerns the idea that science alone defines the royal man (Castoriadis,
2002: 104, 24–25).
Together these digressions constitute Plato’s thought experiments on rulership
that are grounded on a metaphysics of the political, the result of which is the
creation of a counter-model of highly sophisticated heteronomy – what will
be termed reflexive heteronomy – that takes its form as the imposition ‘to rule
over’ that became the basis for the invention of ‘royal’ sovereignty from antiquity
to Absolutism to the nation state. As Castoriadis notes,

One cannot call Plato totalitarian or make him into the father of totali-
tarianism. But on account of his hatred of democracy and on account of
110 Political modernities
what constantly shines through him as a desire to fix the things in the city
into place, to put a halt to the evolution of history, to stop self-institution,
to suppress self-institution – on this account, Plato obviously becomes in
a certain way, the inspirer of the arsenal of everything in history that will
represent this attitude.
(Castoriadis, 2002: 5)18

Let us follow Castoriadis a little closer here, especially beginning with his
analysis of Plato’s introduction of the myth of Cronus at a crucial moment in
the text.
For Castoriadis, Plato’s creativity shows its full force in drawing on and
reworking three legends – the myth concerning Atreus and Thyestes in which
the angered Zeus reverses the course of the sun, and events begin to turn
backwards; the myth of Cronus, which is a ‘golden-age’ one; a third that states
that human beings sprouted from the ground and were not produced through
sexual intercourse. As he says, ‘we must first of all see the extraordinary
combination … of the audacity of Plato’s imagination in the poetic sense and
the geometrical rigour with which, once certain postulates are made, he
unfolds his story’ (Castoriadis, 2002: 96).19 Plato introduces a negative
anthropology in the wake of political and philosophical experiments and
innovations. As Castoriadis notes elsewhere, these experiments and innovations
occur throughout the entirety of Athenian society.

The spirit of the democracy is to be sought, and to be found, in the tragic

poets, in the historians, in Herodotus in the discussion between the three
Persian satraps on the three regimes, in Thucydides (and not only in Pericles’
Oration), and obviously and especially, and above all in the institutions
and practices of the democracy.
(Castoriadis, 1996: 125)

According to Castoriadis, it also altered the sense of time from the continuous
and the ‘traditional’ to the changefulness, and the latter was identified with
the sense of self-instituting. ‘[At] Athens, one can see in the sixth, the fifth, and
the fourth centuries, change took place between generations, or even within
generations … This is not an “individual” phenomenon: the form of tragedy
changes, architectural style changes, people change, institutions change’
(Castoriadis, 1996: 126).20 Castoriadis’s recognition of self-instituting change,
of altering temporal horizons as well as politics, all indicate maturity, as does
the capacity for reflexivity about its excesses, limits and hubris.
For Plato, all of this is rank immaturity. Plato’s negative anthropology
takes the following course in a move or jump he makes to the myth of Cronus.
The myth of Cronus stands between his discussion of the statesman as herdsman
and pastor to the statesman as weaver. According to Castoriadis, this jump or
‘pleasant story to relieve the strain’ (Plato) is explained not as a point of con-
nection between the herdsman and the weaver, but as a point of reorientation
Weber, Castoriadis: The fragility of politics 111
(Castoriadis, 2002: 101). In Castoriadis’s terms the myth of Cronus is the
creation by Plato of a new social imaginary of reflexive heteronomy that
releases human beings from the recognition of their self-created autonomy
and their self-incurred tutelage through the invention of a philosophy of history.
Plato’s aim is to challenge the Greek Enlightenment view that emphasised the
human creation of its worlds of cities, polois, politics, philosophy, the arts, and
even the art of war. None of these were divine gifts. In Castoriadis’s view,
Plato introduces the myth because

he wants to destroy fifth century thought, destroy Democritus’ anthro-

pogony … so far as to introduce the idea that what is there during this
period of corruption [the Greek Enlightenment] that makes it possible for
us to survive is not a human creation but a divine donation.
(Castoriadis, 2002: 102)

The key issue for Castoriadis is Plato’s introduction of the ideas of disorder,
decay and corruption. The Greek Enlightenment for Plato is a space, a gap,
and the crucial question for him is:

[D]id the nurslings of Cronus make a right use of their time? … When
[the whole order of things] must travel without God, things go well
enough in the years immediately after he abandons control, but as time
goes on and forgetfulness of God arises in it, the ancient condition of chaos
also begins to assert its sway. At last, as this cosmic era draws to its close,
this disorder comes to a head. The few good things it produces it corrupts
with so gross a taint of evil that hovers at the very brink of destruction,
both of itself and the creatures in it.
(Plato, 1989: 1037–1039, ll. 272c‒273c‒d)

This period, according to Plato will only lead to immaturity or worse. Left
alone to its own devices, the world including the human one will be reduced to
chaotic barbarism. Plato’s new anthropogony and his cultural pessimism are
introduced at this point. Humanity is a disaster. To fix this, to move to a new
maturity, disorder must be reversed into order, and the only way that this can be
achieved is by standing or stepping outside the conventional yet disastrous
forward moving cycle of time and invoking another one that stands apart and
is independent of it. Positing a reversal of time is not only Plato’s fictional device;
it is also according to Castoriadis, ‘a move to transcendence that he had already
established in The Timeus. Only true time is the time directed by God, and this
time must run in reverse. ‘The god is obliged to take back the helm, resume
his post as helmsman, and set things right again … By intervening, Chronus
saves the real, effectively actual existence of the world. He saves universality of
being’ (Castoriadis, 2002: 111–112). And so, as Castoriadis notices, humanity is
released from its own responsibility into the responsibility of a god, into a
new theodicy, an anthropogonic, cosmological heteronomy.
112 Political modernities
Thus, for Castoriadis, Plato’s goal of introducing the myth of Cronus at this
particular point of the text is to introduce ‘what could be called strategic
reserves at the level of philosophy, at the level of ontology, at the level of
cosmology’ (Castoriadis, 2002: 114). In the right and proper time of Cronus
human beings were led by divine shepherds, and not by one another. In other
words, Plato introduces a philosophy of history in the form of a cosmological
argument to take us back to the political and away from politics.
However, as Plato has already established, if it is a shepherd who is going
to lead and tend to a human flock, then who might this new sovereign be?
Here, Plato returns from the cosmological level to posit a this-worldly sovereign
ruler who will take over the reins, so to speak, from the (re)public of citizens,
who in Plato’s view have made such a mess of things. Rather, and by using
the myth, governing rather than politics falls not to anyone. ‘Making laws is a
royal job’. Against the political and cultural inclinations of the Greeks,
including the Spartans, so Castoriadis argues, Plato introduces a second
digression, the notion of royal sovereignty into the lexicon of Greek thought
in the context of a discussion of three possible models of rulership – oligarchy,
democracy and monarchy, with the latter being viewed by the Greeks at the
time as ‘barbarian’ and Persian, rather than tyrannous, as with the rulers of
Sicily. As Castoriadis notes,

[T]he vacillations of The Statesman can be understood if they are placed

within the evolution of Plato’s thought, which begins with The Gorgias,
when Socrates says to Calicles, who is presented as a politician: it isn’t
you who are the true statesman, it is me {521d}. The true statesman is
the philosopher, he who knows how to tell the definition of the just and
the unjust. From there one goes to The Republic, with the philosopher
who governs. Then The Statesman gives us this definition of the royal
man … And finally we touch down in the city of The Laws, where the
government is almost democratic – are aristocratic in Aristotle’s sense,
since the magistrates are elected and not drawn by lot – but in which at
the same time, there’s this nocturnal council.
(Castoriadis, 2002: 158; see also 119–121, 127–128)22

It is more than this, though, for Plato. Rulership proper – which he now
equates with royal sovereignty as its ideal – requires correct knowledge, if it is
not to be brute force or tyranny (Plato, 1989: 334–344, ll. 291e–299). And, for
Castoriadis and for Plato, this is the key point and the topic of Castoriadis’s
discussion of the third digression in The Statesman. For Plato, and in the
wake of the myth of Cronus, the problem with politics is that it is a chaotic
activity in which arguments are made, votes taken and decisions made –
again and again, all of which can be revisited and reversed. And this activity
occurs from all who are citizens, and requires no specialised knowledge or
science of politics. It is pragmatic; it also requires phronesis or creative judge-
ment in that it is reflexive and involves a learning process of trial and error
Weber, Castoriadis: The fragility of politics 113
(albeit not an evolutionary one). As Castoriadis notes in his observation
concerning democratic practice or the practice of making political autonomy:
‘(1) the crowd is capable of distinguishing bad advice from good advice; and
(2) that, after trials and errors and a number of experiences, it is capable of
learning’ (Castoriadis, 2002: 140). For Plato, though, only an art or science of
government (and not even a vocation – in the spirit of Weber) will save us,
bring us back to maturity. As Plato remarks through the voice of The Stranger:

I think it follows that if the art of government is to be found in this world

at all in its pure form, it will be found in the possession of one or two, or at
most, of a select few … On this principle it is the men who possess the art
of ruling and these only, whom we are to regard as rulers, whatever their
constitutional form their rule may take … Then the constitution par
excellence, the only constitution worthy of the name, must be one in
which the rulers are not men making a show of political cleverness but
men possessed of scientific understanding of the art of government.
(Plato, 1989: 1062, ll. 293b‒d)

As Castoriadis remarks this ‘art’, science or e-pisteme of government is the

ability to have the knowledge of the totality, the art of entering into the action at
the right moment, under the right condition. As such, and more importantly, it
is the ability to order, and hence control, the forms of knowledge to make a
totality (Castoriadis, 2002: 144, see also 121–124, 130). And yet, as again
Castoriadis notes, ‘the e-pisteme is practically inaccessible to those who are
human’ (Castoriadis, 2002: 155). Ultimately it belongs to the realm of ‘Ideas’
and so Plato constitutes a ‘gap’ between the ‘Ideal’ or the essences and concrete
reality with all of its flaws (or in the language of The Statesman its illnesses
and maladies for which a doctor is required).23 In Plato’s view the law, and
especially the law instituted by the polis cannot fill the gap between
universality and the concrete – only the royal man can.
All of the other models of the political are imitations of this basic meta-
physical ‘fact’, for Plato. In other words, the distinction that he makes
between the ‘Ideal’ and the real or concrete anchors the text in terms of
its metaphysics and not only in terms of its science of government. For Plato,
as Castoriadis goes to great length to point out, the law, because it is an
imitation, can only attempt to fix on paper, to write down, the multiple acts
and decisions that constitute the activity of politics (or really the political). It
is an alienation of the spoken word.24
The statesman, thus, functions in the same way as the divine shepherd does
in the myth of Cronus. In other words, Plato absolutises the gap between divine
time and human time, on the one hand, and the one between the universal and
the concrete (as part of the same system) on the other; and in terms of the
latter fills it with the statesman who is also law and judge. Because Plato
absolutises the gap with the statesman as the ‘fill-in’, so to speak, so can he
also absolutise or ‘fix’ the notions of the universal and the concrete. But, for
114 Political modernities
Castoriadis there is a movement on both sides, which affects how the gap
itself is viewed:

But it’s precisely in the twofold existence of a rule and a certain gap in
relation to this rule that what we can have as autonomy qua social beings
is established. It’s a gap, first of all, because the rule not being able to
cover all the cases obliges us to find our way in concrete situations, not
only legally immaterial ones but even legally pertinent, important ones, in
which nothing is prescribed. And it’s a gap, in the second place, precisely
because, the rule never being able to be adapted to reality, we are called
upon from time to time to call it into question.
(Castoriadis, 2002: 144)

Yet, for Plato, the one, not the many, can only undertake this activity. This
makes the royal man an exceptional man, whose qualities (Weber would
say charisma) have to be accepted by everyone, by the city. As Castoriadis
caustically remarks, ‘And here Plato has just said: No matter whether the
statesman governs with or without nomos, with or without consent, as long as
he has e-pisteme … it’s outrageous’ (Castoriadis, 2002: 131).
For Castoriadis, like Weber in his own discussion of the invention of
modern tyranny but from a different direction, the implications are immediate.
This is the invention of the absolutisation of the political, which is legitimated by
the science of metaphysics. The statesman is exceptional, and by being so can act
both within and outside the law for the good of ‘the city’ and can exercise a claim
for the sole right and use of explicit power. In fact s/he knows what the good of the
city is. In a critique of not only politics but also formal law and writing because of
constitution is a written document, an objectivated argument that is alienated
from its original source, Plato can claim, so Castoriadis argues in tacit agreement
with Habermas on this point that ‘the truth is in the knowledge and the will
of the royal man and not in the laws’ (Castoriadis, 2002: 123, 132–133, 141).
Plato’s Statesman, for Castoriadis articulates the germ of reflexive hetero-
nomy, as against the germ of autonomy. To put it bluntly, On Plato’s Statesman
can be read as the companion text to ‘The Greek Polis and the Creation of
Democracy’, not for its analysis of Greek democracy, but for its analysis of the
social‒historical creation of reflexive heteronomy. It is taken, germinated as the
later plants of Absolutism, authoritarianism and exceptionalism in a modern
political form as the new redeemer, Caesar or capitano (for example, the
secular Napoleon or the new theocratic leaders), the party, and even the con-
temporary law of the excluding exception. As the implications of Castoriadis’s
study on Plato’s The Statesman indicates the origin of this notion does not
rely on, for example, the universalisation of either a negative anthropology of
survival in the manner portrayed by Agamben, or a negative anthropology of
the friend/enemy distinction, together with Schmitt’s idealisation of Absolutism,
but rather from an historical moment that is articulated in a philosophical
register that has lasting consequences.25
Weber, Castoriadis: The fragility of politics 115
It would be enough, without the development of the modern forms of
authoritarianism and exceptionalism, to point to the formal bureaucratic forms
so aptly analysed by Weber and his observations concerning oligarchic and
corporatist arrangements. This is irrespective of the positive recommendations
that occur for these in the context of political modernity by such writers as
Hegel, Durkheim and Mauss in their own attempts to reframe, if not ‘the
city’, but the relation between civil society and the state under the guise of
politics. For Weber, though, as well as Hegel, Durkheim and Mauss the issue
is not so much autonomy with its conflicts and dissonances, but integration and
control, especially at the level of institutionally constituted mediations between
the various sectors of society, whether or not these are formal bureaucratic
mediations, or ones constituted through corporatist or representative democracy.
Rather, and as Castoriadis has noted again and again, bureaucratisation,
corporatism and oligarchy, under which he also subsumes representative
democracy, downplay varieties of conflict. These forms of the political are
geared to preconceived or background values or imaginary horizons of unity
and formal bureaucratic control in their exercise of explicit power, the result
of which is the closing nature of the political and the circumscription of politics
(Hegel, 1979; Durkheim, 1992; Durkheim, 1964: 2nd Preface; Mauss, 1990;
Michels, 1968; Premat, 2006). Both Weber and Castoriadis understand that
because politics is an indeterminate historical creation it is subject to, chal-
lenged by and intersects with other social‒historical creations that emphasise
both the closed and heteronomous nature of explicit power and the political.
This is the case even if these forms are self-limiting by their own formal or
procedural terms of reference, which can change politics and even demolish it.
This makes politics not a tragic regime, nor one subject to historical fixity, but
a fragile one.

1 As will be indicated below it has a quite specific meaning for Castoriadis.
2 By making the past speak, by asking questions self-consciously raised by the present,
the past is turned into an interlocutor rather than either an object that can be
dissected or reassembled in the manner of a forensic anthropologist qua scientist,
or a corpse that can be picked over by crows. The reading from the present is also
addressed with particular reference to the Greeks: Ruprecht, 2001: 29–55; Heller,
2011: 179–190. On the issue of hermeneutics, creativity and the relation between
the present and its pasts see also Rundell, 1998: 87–110.
3 Lefort’s work on the political is beyond the scope of this particular study, but will
be discussed in the following one.
4 It should be noted that explicit power should not be viewed in the standard
Weberian way as a ‘thing’, a resource or object that is imposed and dominates.
Rather, it is a social relation and a contestatory one at that. Elias’s work is instructive
here. In his terms, there are power ratios or balances between social actors or groups
with their relative strengths and weaknesses, strategies and counter-strategies. In
other words, power is not a ‘thing’, an instrument, for Elias. Instead of speaking
about power externally imposed, Elias proposes that we speak of figurations,
ratios and balances that are internal features of any social relation. Power is thus
116 Political modernities
not blunt. Leaving his thesis of civilising processes to one side, Elias’s model of power
also builds in the forms of self-perceptions and definitions that are internalised
by groups and projected upon others as a co-determining, non-rational and non-
calculative dimension. In Elias’s view, the development of perceptions that form
and maintain identity of both self and other is an integral part of any power
relation or figurational form. See Elias (1978) and Elias and Scotson (1994). This
places Elias’s idea of power closer to Weber’s notion of open and closed social
relationships, as well as Marx’s idea of contestatory social relations which he portrays
in The Eighteenth Brumaire, for example, and even Foucault’s action-based notion of
power in his ‘The Subject and Power’. Hence it is more appropriate here to speak
of shifts in balances of power that swing between open or closed forms. See also
Petherbridge, 2013.
5 On the issue of cruelty see Rundell, 2013a: 3–20. Cruelty, especially in its form as
radical evil, makes reflexive heteronomy completely self-enclosed. I argue elsewhere
that neither explicit power nor cruelty exhaust the ‘anthropological universality’ of
human intersubjective forms – love and friendship are two such other dimensions
(Rundell, 2004a: 307–343). In this sense I make a distinction between not simply
violence and the political (Arendt) but between cruelty and politics.
6 This chapter builds on my analysis in Chapter 5 although from another direction.
In the context of the current chapter, Weber’s analysis of particular city states will
be the main focus. In other words, Weber’s more formal arguments concerning city
types and the formation of the occidental city more generally will be left to one
side as I have discussed this above.
7 On the political innovations and some assessments of Weber’s interpretation of the
Greek city states see Finley, 1972, 1973, 1983. See also: Raaflaub, ‘Introduction’,
in Raaflaub and Wallace ‘“People’s Power” and the Egalitarian Trends in Archaic
Greece’; Wallace, ‘Revolutions and a New Order in Solonian Athens’; Raaflaub,
‘The Breakthrough of Demokratia in Mid-Fifth Century Athens’ and Farrar, ‘Power
to the People’, all in Raaflaub et al., 2007; Hansen, 1991; Farrar, 1988; Lévêque and
Vidal-Naquet, 1996; Vernant and Vidal-Naquet, 1988; Scott, 2010.
8 Weber’s economic analysis of the patrician city is found in the section ‘The Economic
Character of the Ancient and Medieval Patriciate’, where he concludes that the
patriciate were rentiers rather than entrepreneurs conducting business from an
office (Weber, 1978a: 1293). The patriciates were early modern finance or venture
capitalists that gave loans for ventures. They participated in the risks and the
profits, and left the work to others. This early modern activity relegated them, in
Weber’s eyes, to status holders, rather than rational bourgeois class actors. See also
Weber, 1978a: 1332 for his summary of his economic analysis of the medieval city.
9 These city revolutions appeared in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, in Milan in
1198, Luca in 1203, Lodi in 1206, Pavia in 1208, Sienna in 1210, Verona in 1227
and Bologna in 1228. As has been pointed out elsewhere when the medieval cities
are included the history of political modernity lengthens from a concern with the
eighteenth century with the American and French revolutions functioning as
competing paradigms, to a longer historical account that includes not only the
Renaissance city states but also the Lowlands, especially Holland, and the Swiss
cantons (see Collins, 1999). The following part of this current discussion leans on
the previous study.
10 This meant that, in Weber’s eyes, it could not protect itself, its citizenry or its
society against dangers and tyrannies, and the ones that mattered most for Weber
were the tyranny of irrational politics that emerged from the pluralisation of gods
and demons, and the tyranny of the capitano. Weber’s suspicion towards democracy,
which is evident throughout his analysis of the medieval city as well as his remarks
on its form in Greek antiquity, entails that there is a reluctance to extend his
rationalisation thesis in the direction of the self-institution of autonomy.
Weber, Castoriadis: The fragility of politics 117
11 See Weber, 1970: 77–128, 1978a: 1381–1462. For Weber, ‘Rome’ represents the
invention of formal‒legal principles of jurisprudence. As his remarks on the Roman
Tribunate and the rational‒legal legitimacy given to it indicate, the problem with
democracy is that it is not conducive to purposive rationalisation. In one of his most
telling and important comments, Weber states: ‘[In] Roman political life the rhetoric
and give-and-take of the agora and ekklesia played as little role as the competitions of
the gymnasion … Tradition and experience of the Elders, the former officeholders
above all, determined politics. Old age, rather than youth, set the tone of social forms
and the character of dignity. Rational deliberations, rather than the rhetorically stirred
lust for booty of the demos or the emotional excitement of the young warriors, tipped
the balance in Roman politics. Rome remained under the direction of the experience,
the deliberation and the feudal power of the honoratiores’ (Weber, 1978a: 1368). In
Weber’s historiographical reconstruction, the democratic revolution of the medieval
city is short-lived, and cannot push towards the present, even as a model. The
republican city in both its medieval and Ancient Greek forms is too unstable to
be taken as a model for the creation and institutionalisation of politics in a post-
patrimonial, that is, fully modern context. ‘Rome’ is a better bet for Weber as a
paradigm for the politics of modernity.
12 Castoriadis makes many critical remarks about Weber’s analysis of the political
forms of Greek antiquity; see for example Castoriadis, 1991: 47–80.
13 As will be discussed in detail below, Castoriadis admires Plato’s creativity as well
as critiques his philosophical style and invention of what I will term following
Castoriadis, reflexive heteronomy.
14 There are two aspects of Kant’s work that haunt the works of these two writers –
one concerned with the technicalities and formulations of pure reason, which as far
as both Weber and Castoriadis are concerned finds its way into the modern technical‒
industrial imaginary with its scientism. There is also the other aspect of Kant’s
work concerned with practical reason where the notions of autonomy and freedom
are central. In ‘What is Enlightenment?’ Kant opens his discussion of the notions
of freedom and autonomy as a release from self-incurred immaturity. Maturity
means for Kant the free use of practical reason. Castoriadis leans on this idea of
maturity, if not explicitly. For him it means critico-reflexive self-instituting autonomy,
while arguing against the Kantian programme of reason and its transcendental
grounding. See Kant, 1991: 1–11; Castoriadis, 1991: 81–123.
15 Given the aim of this current chapter, Castoriadis, rather than Plato, will be our
guide for The Statesman. According to Castoriadis the real tetralogy of the later
phase in which The Statesman is located in Plato’s oeuvre should have been The
Philosopher (not written), The Statesman, The Sophist, and The Demagogue (not
written), instead of the more conventionally arranged Theaetatus, The Sophist, The
Statesman, and The Philosopher (see Castoriadis, 2002: 14). Castoriadis, though,
proposes his own phases of Plato’s works of which there are four. The fourth one
indicates the full fecundity of Plato’s thinking in which the aporias and the mixed
show themselves fully. This fourth phase, according to Castoriadis, consists of The
Cratylus, The Theaetatus, The Parminedes, whose aporetic results flow into The
Sophist, The Statesman, The Timeus, The Critas, The Philebus and The Laws
(Castoriadis, 2002: 18). See also the ‘Foreword: Castoriadis and The Statesman’ by
Vidal-Naquet; ‘Introduction: Living thought at Work’ by Vernay; ‘On the Trans-
lation’ and ‘Translator’s Afterword’ all in Castoriadis, 2002. The edition of Plato’s
Statesman used in preparation for this study was Plato, 1989: 1018–1085. This parti-
cular translation of The Statesman is by J. B. Skemp. To be sure, Castoriadis reads
Plato’s work in the context of ongoing dialogue and development of his onto-
logical investigations in his 1974 The Imaginary Institution of Society, and
‘Time and Creation’, the publication of which post-dates these seminars. See also
Oikonomou, 2005: 1–15.
118 Political modernities
16 While Castoriadis had an increasing impatience towards Marx’s work as well as
Freud’s, this study of Plato’s Statesman is filled with perspicacity, wisdom, wit and
the fine work of a master butcher – his self-description following Plato – as he
works the text. See Castoriadis, 2002: 29.
17 Castoriadis makes an illuminating reference to music as a possible paradigm for
the ‘work’ of the radical imaginary, rather than dreams, as such, notwithstanding
his reference to the latter. ‘I believe that we have here something that is analogous
to what might be called the latent content that is at the start of all music, which
perhaps initially includes only a rhythm and an intensity coupled with another
latent content that is melodic, all of that being subject from the outset to first-order
secondary elaboration … that of expression; then, next, to a second-order secondary
elaboration, that of genuine fixation, that is to say, of formulation or composition’
(Castoriadis, 2002: 168).
18 As Castoriadis himself notes, this is a little too blunt an assessment of Plato’s
philosophy. For as Plato himself states in The Statesman via the Eleatic Stranger,
‘Tendence by human herds by violent control is the tyrant’s art; tendence freely
accepted by herds of free bipeds we call statesmanship. Shall we now declare that
he who possesses this latter art and practices this tendence is a true king and a true
statesman?’ (Plato, 1989: 1042,.l. 276d). We along with Castoriadis need to
understand what this statesman does.
19 For the myth of Cronus in The Statesman see Plato, 1989: 1033–1042, ll. 268b‒277a.
For Plato, the herdsman or shepherd simply won’t do as a definition of rulership
and nurture of humans. It doesn’t provide for the ‘specific art of nurture of human
beings, and if there were, there would be many more directly involved in its exercise
that any ruler is … But if it is a question of an art of “responsible charge” of a
whole community, what art has a better or prior claim than statesmanship to fulfil
this function? What other art can claim to be the art of bearing sovereign rule, the
art which bears sovereign rule over men?’ (Plato, 1989: 1041–1042, l. 276b). Plato
subsequently turns his attention to addressing these questions.
20 On the political innovations see Finley 1972, 1973, 1983; Raaflaub, ‘Introduction’,
in Raaflaub and Wallace ‘“People’s Power” and the Egalitarian Trends in Archaic
Greece’; Wallace, ‘Revolutions and a New Order in Solonian Athens’; Raaflaub, ‘The
Breakthrough of Demokratia in Mid-Fifth Century Athens’; and Farrar, ‘Power to
the People’, all in Raaflaub et al., 2007; Hansen, 1991; Farrar, 1988; Lévêque and
Vidal-Naquet, 1996; Vernant and Vidal-Naquet, 1988; Scott, 2010.
21 Castoriadis states that he would ‘like to maintain that this first definition of the
statesman as shepherd is in fact proposed by Plato only in order to be able to tell
the story of the reign of Cronus … it’s the first definition that is introduced in order
that Plato might be able to bring up the myth, in order that there might be
something onto which to hang the myth’ (Castoriadis, 2002: 101).
22 See Plato, The Gorgias, 521d; The Republic, especially Book VI, 488b‒d for the
philosopher king, and Book VIII for Plato’s dialogue regarding the five forms of
government – aristocracy, timocracy, oligarchy, democracy and tyranny; The Sta-
tesman, 291d‒e and 300d‒303b, where at 302d he describes seven – kingly rule and
tyranny (the rule of one), aristocracy and oligarchy (the rule of few), and direct
democracy and constitutional or law bound democracy (the rules of the many). The
seventh is a rule by the statesman who possesses the art or science of governing (305e)
that oversees all other arts and activities, can ‘weave’ them together. His notion of
e-pisteme overlays Plato’s notion of the statesman as weaver. See also The Laws,
especially Book 12 at 960b‒e, 961c, and 969b‒c for his dialogues concerning the
nocturnal council. These are all in Plato, 1989. If we draw on Weber’s analysis of
Venice as well, the nocturnal council is rule by a closed council using executive power.
23 Plato keeps the important distinction between e-pisteme and technai. Episteme is the
art of knowing everything, of making, ordering and controlling knowledge into a
Weber, Castoriadis: The fragility of politics 119
totality. Technai, on the other hand, is the ‘how to’ of a specific task and the skills that
are required to fulfil this task. Phronesis is neither. It is that which is neither truly
or really codifiable. Castoriadis also ‘leans’ on these distinctions in his own
formulations of legein and teukhein in The Imaginary Institution of Society, with
the added dimension of the constituting work of the radical imaginary.
24 In his critical remarks concerning the distinction between speech and writing, or
speech and the law Castoriadis states: ‘There is something that is the living subject,
living logos, living speech, living dialogue; and this is the genuine “life of the
mind”, to employ an anachronistic expression. And then there’s the dead deposit
of that, which are letters, the grammata, artifacts, which the spirit has constituted,
in which it has crystallised itself, but from which it has withdrawn. And this latter
became one of the great themes of subsequent philosophy, in Hegel and Marx …
the point of departure for this distinction, between the opposition between the
spirit that breaths, that is alive, and dead works, is this passage from The States-
man’ (Castoriadis, 2002: 121–122, 162) See Plato, The Statesman and Phaedrus,
where this argument is laid out (Plato, 1989: 338, ll. 294b‒c and 552, ll. 274d‒275e,
25 Castoriadis’s critiques of reflexive heteronomy have revolved around two versions of
modernity – the capitalist-bureaucratic one, and the Soviet-style stratocratic one.
Both regimes are oligarchic, although the science or will of the statesman belongs
more to the social imaginary of soviet-type societies, as Castoriadis portrays them.
See, Castoriadis, 1997b: 40–105; 218–238. See also Schmitt, 1985; Agamben, 1998.
7 Power, the state and the closure of
politics – On the recent work of
Claude Lefort

Claude Lefort’s Complications: Communism and the Dilemmas of Democracy

accompanies his past interrogations of totalitarianism, his commitment to
democracy and his engagements with the works of Hannah Arendt and Alexis
de Tocqueville (Lefort, 2007; see also Lefort, 1986, 1988, 2000). It also joins
those studies that have interrogated the nature of the Soviet system, and which
notably include Richard Pipe’s Russia Under the Old Regime, Raymond Aron’s
Democracy and Totalitarianism, Ferenc Fehér, Agnes Heller and György
Markus’s Dictatorship Over Needs, Johann P. Arnason’s The Future that
Failed, François Furet’s The Passing of an Illusion and Martin Malia’s The
Tragedy of Communism, and even cinematically Testimony and The Lives of
Others.1 Although some of these works were written prior to the self-instituted
demise of the Soviet system in 1991, it is always a danger to impute a teleology,
even a negative one with its hope of collapse, when generating a critique of
totalitarianism. Perhaps, and drawing on Malia’s title, there was never, for
Lefort, a tragedy, or an illusion (Furet) in any meaningful sense, but rather
the creation of a completely new system that ushered in a different modernity
from the one usually associated, teleologically or otherwise, with markets,
democracy and the imputed ideas of freedom and progress. Lefort’s study, first
published in French in 1999, and begun initially as a review of Furet’s and
Malia’s own studies, attempts to comprehend and reconstruct the uniqueness
of this new and different modernity – not as an abnormality or pathology, or
as a tragedy, illusion or failure, but as a social creation sui generis.
For Lefort, ‘tragedy’ is such a disturbing word. It only makes sense if there
exists within its inner conceptualisation, an inner logic or truth (or conflict
between two truths) that becomes ‘unfixed’ because of some contingent,
unexpected and inexplicable state of affairs. In the context of the history of
the Soviet system from Lenin to Gorbechev there might be the sense of ‘if
only’; if only there had been better understanding, better vision, better history,
better leadership, a better party, better reflexivity. Lefort, in his critiques of
Furet and Malia, dispenses with this ‘if only’ sensibility. Rather, for him, there is a
contingency that is suppressed within such hoped-for thinking. This contingency
simply is. The contingency of the Soviet experiment is the indetermination as
a creative social imaginary with its own direction and self-legitimation, which
On the recent work of Claude Lefort 121
to be sure had a genealogy, a germ that, he, Furet, and Malia make clear,
includes the French and Russian Jacobins, especially Robespierre and Tkachev,
and the Slavophile controversy (Lefort, 2007; Furet, 1999: 1–33; Malia, 1994:
21–78).2 However, this genealogy did not set down a predetermined path, but
lit beacons for the not so wary, the opportunistic, the fellow travellers and the
ignominious to follow. The revolution of February 1917 and the October seizure
of power occurred in the context of these lit paths. For Lefort, though, there was
no trajectory; rather there was an innovation and rupture of the revolutionary
tradition and the creation of totalitarianism, pure and simple.

Bolshevism marked a rupture that drove the ensemble of revolutionary

movements. This rupture became clear when one observes the methods of
the new party, its idealisation of violence, and its plan to seize power – all
of which had something in common with a specifically Russian terroristic
tradition, even if, it is true, the Bolsheviks repudiated it.
(Lefort, 2007: 135)

It was an invention that was monstrous, evil and vociferous. It had its own
social imaginary (Lefort, 2007: 140, 1986: 273–291).
For Lefort, it is the inventiveness of this social imaginary that is of interest
here. Complications is closer to the idea of origins, in the sense of Hannah
Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism, than to either Furet’s or Malia’s works.
However, it differs from Arendt’s in the sense that, for him, Arendt emphasises
an underlying tyranny, rather than a fusion of layered processes that combine
in the order of the Party. What is instructive in Complications is not Lefort’s
discussions of Furet and Malia, notwithstanding the detail and insightfulness
of their work and his critique of it, but his continuing critical engagement of
Arendt’s work, a critical engagement that yields invaluable results.
For Lefort, the uniqueness and mysterious attraction of the Soviet system
can only be understood in the context of the overall uniqueness of modernity
itself. The hallmark feature of modernity can be conceptualised in the formation
of societies of contingent strangers, where contingency, mobility, disconnection
and disaggregation become the phenomenological expression of everyday
lives in the context of the pulverisation of old hierarchies, and the formation
of new ones. This is a world of and for contingent strangers that ushers in
freedom and estrangement, as well as a desire for new connections (Heller,
2011: 159–176). Lefort, in implicitly accepting this perspective, contrasts the
Soviet modernity of contingent strangers with the one that is constructed as
the modernity of contingent strangers of market orientated liberal democracy.
However, for him, the notion of a modernity of market orientated liberal
democracy is wrong-headed – an overly simplified conflation of different and
competing forces both of which are identified with modernity – market liberalism,
and democracy. For him, they are constitutively different. For Lefort, this is what
makes for complications – the complexity of the modern world. This complexity
is the background presupposition of his past and present analyses of Soviet
122 Political modernities
style totalitarianism.3 If totalitarianism is one type of modernity, then so too,
for him, is a democracy of contingent strangers, which can be neither reduced
to, nor viewed as derivative of market liberalism.
For Lefort, the central feature of modernity – the ‘pulverisation’ of the estates
and aristocratic social hierarchies – gave rise to a new world of contingent
strangers, which is constituted, at least for him along three irreducibly different
fault lines – the market, democracy, and communism. Each constructs the
world of contingent strangers differently. And, for Lefort, democracy is the
vantage point for the mobilisation of a critique of the other two fault lines. For
him, the market, and its imaginary representation in liberalism, individualised
the modern project of the contingent stranger, and gave it a calculative hue
based on the private pursuit of everything, freed from the constraints of
others (Lefort, 2007: 74). In Lefort’s view, and following de Tocqueville’s lead,
democracy presumes not individualism, but interdependence, and it is this
interdependence that provides a limit to the conduct of others; or more properly,
in Lefort’s terms, enables conduct to remain political (Lefort, 2007: 74; see also
1988: 9–20).4 In this sense, for Lefort, democracy or the political ‒ and for him,
they are coterminus ‒ is open and empty: it is an open-ended form of society,
open to the circulation of power, the creation of forms of association and the
making of politics, and open to forms of interpretation, to writing the political,
all of which give it substance (Lefort, 2007: 69–75, 2000: xxi, 266–271, 1988).
In contrast to both the market and democratic imaginaries, the totalitarian
one is a world of reduction and closure. In it, in both its Nazi and Communist
forms – although Bolshevism remains Lefort’s continuing point of critique –
all forms of sociability, expression and interpretation are subsumed and
potentially or really annihilated under the instigation of the Party, leaving
only surveillance, anxiety, fear, alcoholism, and the complete estrangement of
contingent strangers from one another. As Lefort states, civil society, if it is

a society in which opinions, beliefs, and divergent interests can more than
simply co-exist, put themselves against one another and possibly be
transformed through mutual interaction: a society in which domains of
activity can develop whose relationships elude all birds-eye views or per-
functory glances (survol), thereby keeping in check the voluntarism and
constructivism of the leaders of the state, [became intolerable for
(Lefort, 2007: 65)

Totalitarianism, for Lefort, became the modernity of ‘voluntary servitude’,

which destroyed friendship, that is ‘the capacity of citizens to connect to one
another by mutually recognising one another as equals’, by recognising
the differences that friendships bring and allowing them to stand apart,
separate (Lefort, 2007: 169). Rather it developed a logic of reincorporation, of
singularity that expelled plurality and division (Lefort, 2007: 171). As Lefort
On the recent work of Claude Lefort 123
notes, in a more than rhetorical flourish, this singularity genealogically con-
nects the Jacobin legacy with Bolshevism. Furthermore, it could be argued that
singularity is turned into the world of totalising surveillance which is more
appropriate to totalitarianism than to the neo-capitalistic worlds portrayed
either as governmentality (Foucault), or bare life (Agamben). In Lefort’s view,
law became immobile ‘while simultaneously imprinting itself on a network of
rules that places everyone squarely under its guillotine blade. Thought is
compressed within the limits of a faultless knowledge. Power accepts nothing
outside itself ’ (Lefort, 2007: 171).
In contrast to Arendt’s position, and already intimated, the secret of totali-
tarianism, for Lefort, is its logic of disincorporation and subsequent reincor-
poration, rather than the logic of identification with either the state or the law.
Here the distinction between him and Arendt is both subtle and important.
For Arendt, the secret of totalitarianism is not only the destruction of class
or conflict-based society and the formation of the mass, but also an identification
of this mass with an ultimate law (of History, of Nature or Race), and hence the
closure of the gap between a regime founded on ‘a consensus juris between
positive laws and the supreme Law as [its] source’ (Lefort, 2007: 146–147;
Arendt, 1979). This closure, which singularises and obliterates ‘the dimension
of the Other’ (Lefort) has, in Lefort’s reconstruction of Arendt’s version, three
characteristics: it wants to explain everything; it has an indifference (nay
hostility) towards that which it thinks it cannot learn; and it deduces all ideas
from a premise taken as action. For Arendt, these characteristics denote a
relation between the idea of an ultimate law, which gives movement to history
and its ideological representation, imposition and identification. Yet, in his
critique of Arendt’s version of totalitarianism, Lefort argues that she conflates
movement or history with the self-representation of totalitarianism, which for
him is organised, as he says ‘under the sign of the refusal of history’ (Lefort,
2007: 152). What appears as movement or history indicates, for Lefort, a
self-enclosing totality, or an encysted reality of incorporation.
For Lefort, totalitarianism was not the result of a voluntaristic political will
and acts of tyranny and dictatorship that appear as exceptional. In his terms
communism was not exceptional, but belonged to the modern disincorporation
of power. According to Lefort all modern forms of power are disincorporated in
that they are no longer locatable or incarnated in the community, in whatever
way the community is represented – as tribe, church, or sovereign. Moreover
this form of representation also gives the sense that power, while concretised
in the laws of the community, appears above it, that is, as transcendent. In the
modern political world of contingent strangers, power is disincorporated
through the invocation of popular sovereignty, that is, in the invention of
modern forms of citizenship. In this sense, modern power appears to be
However, this dispersal is both apparent and real. It is apparent as power
resides in an abstracted and formal way in a legal constitution that underwrites
the modern state and politics as a ‘juridico-functional apparatus’. However,
124 Political modernities
the dispersal is real in the sense that politics is not only the result of this
apparatus, but is constituted spatially in the form of civic actions, liberties
and conflicts. The law makes itself known by those who not only act upon it,
but also make it – by those possessing it. Furthermore, this possession provides
both a limit point and a point of idealisation or modern transcendence. In
this way, the legitimacy of the political world of contingent strangers confronts
a gap or space between the symbolic and the imaginary – between the
instauration of the political, and its phantasmic, or more than real and concrete
dimension (Lefort, 2007: 143, 1988: 165–255).5
In this sense totalitarianism is unexceptional. For Lefort, it belonged to the
modern impetus of the disincorporation of power. However, it created its own
version of it. As Lefort states,

it was anchored in a collective organ on which all institutions and bonds

among individuals and groups [of contingent strangers] depended. Or
more exactly that organ was supposed to bring these institutions and
bonds to life and by the same token … be their soul.
(Lefort, 2007: 139)

For Lefort, though, and in contrast to both Aron and Arendt, this capacity of
totalitarianism to be both the organiser of social power and its sole producer
at the level of social transcendence closes the gap between its concrete
expression and its socially transcendent one. In Lefort’s terms, this is totali-
tarianism’s perversion of modern political arrangements. More strongly put,
and in the vein of non-pathological thinking, this closure marks the creativity
of totalitarianism itself. In this way, and as Lefort goes on to note, it is not
only that there is no movement at the level of social conflicts as well as at the
level of representation. There is also a closure of the space between the con-
crete expression in law and the socially transcendent as law, both of which
were incarnated within the modern political institution of contingent strangers,
the Party. In this way, and as Lefort goes on to argue, the gaps and mediating
forms between constitutionalism, bureaucratic governance, legitimacy, con-
testation, power and politics collapse and disappear into one another. In this
context, contestation means an act of violence against itself by those who are
not outside, but inside and thus deeply implicated.
Hence, what was disincorporated also became, in Lefort’s view, a reincor-
poration. Conflict – over material resources, resources of power and
interpretations – became synonymous with illegality itself. In this sense, it is
not a conflict between ‘us’ and ‘them’, but an illegality between ‘us’ and those
who had once been part of ‘us’. In contrast to those interpretations of totali-
tarianism, which views Nazism as the paradigm case, with its hard boundary
between ‘us’ and ‘them’, ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’, for Lefort in taking
communism as the paradigm of totalitarian modernity, reincorporation is the
other side of disincorporation, without its capacity for gaps and points of
mediation. As he states,
On the recent work of Claude Lefort 125
the party no longer appeared as a power above them, since circumstances
could have made them exchange places. The accused did not cease to be
included in the we that excluded him … Party militants [even accepted
this strange condition] they consented, for the party, to be condemned by
the party. They gave and denounced themselves to the point of passing
themselves off as its enemies out of fear of losing their bond with it.
(Lefort, 2007: 167–168)

In this sense, there is nowhere to hide, no excommunication, no exodus; only

the Gulag, re-education or execution. Everything not only fell under the purview
of the law – the law also became both the form of social embodiment, and
socially transcendent.
Lefort’s discussion of the invention of modern politics as a process of dis-
incorporation, in which he radicalises de Tocqueville’s insights and draws an
incipient social theory of democracy from it, together with his theory of
reincorporation in which Bolshevism, rather than Nazism, is the paradigm
case of totalitarianism, is the major feature of his series of reflections. For
those on the Left, the lessons are acute. In the contemporary period of the
‘war on terror’, of refugee ‘exclusion zones’, and the concern over boundaries
in a putatively borderless world, the danger of using Nazism as the paradigm
example of the totalitarian option is to draw on, but overplay, the increasing
use of executive power in the context of the articulation of the political world
of contingent strangers. Notwithstanding the insights drawn from such critiques,
the lesson for the Left from Lefort’s work is to dissociate itself from its long-
held fascination with the totalitarian option. From Lefort’s perspective, and
which is why he chooses de Tocqueville against Arendt, Aron and Furet in
terms of his theoretical impulses, it is not only the openness that is the
hallmark of the political forms of modernity that is worth championing, but
also their ongoing, if fragile, capacity to offer critiques of the new forms of
reincorporation and fundamentalism.

1 See Lefort’s essays on the revolutionary tradition in Lefort (1988: 59–162). See also Aron
(1990); Pipes (1974); Fehér et al. (1982); Arnason (1993); Furet (1999); Malia (1994).
2 Besançon, 1981, Fehér, 1987b, and Walicki, 1969, 1975 have also made similar
arguments. See also Hardy, 1977; Rundell, 1990.
3 See especially the collection of essays on totalitarianism in Lefort, 1988.
4 To be sure, Lefort has had a long engagement with de Tocqueville’s work in the
context of his critiques of the Jacobin paradigm (Lefort, 1988: 165–209, 2000: 35–66).
5 See also the special issue of Thesis Eleven, 2006: 87 on the work of Claude Lefort;
and Howard (1974–75: 2–29).
8 Tensions of citizenship in an age of
diversity: Reflections on territoriality,
democracy and symmetrical reciprocity

Globalisation, nations and citizens

In contemporary social theory, ‘the dialectic of globalisation’ has been used as
a trope to throw into relief the late twentieth- and early twenty-first centuries as a
world caught in a tension between internationalisation and regionalisation in a
way that has transformed the boundaries of, and the relations between nation
states. Internationally, these continuing and contemporary processes are eco-
nomic growth through further internationalisation of the division of labour and
the development of global, rather than national cities, conflicts concerning
democracy, solidarity and identity that have occurred in the old and newly
formed states in the post-Cold-war era and which have seen the involvement
of international and supra-national organisations such as the UN and the
European Union, and the internationalisation of social problems such as
damage to, and concern for, the environment, poverty, disease, terrorism and
crime. Regionally, these processes originate from increasing demographic
changes, population movements and the formation of ‘new’ diasporas, the
political dynamics between national centres and regional areas, the politici-
sation and extension of categories of rights, and cultural diversification. As
has been pointed out in a recent book by Neil Smelser, the effect of these
processes may be increased or decreased sovereignty, increased or decreased
military conflict or cooperation, increased or decreased cultural diversity.
From this perspective, this dialectic of globalisation is redrawing collective
identities that can be either inward or outward looking (in the light of the
former, ethnic, sexual or gender tribes and in the light of the latter, ‘new’
ethnic, sexual, or gender diasporas). Thus, a new ‘map’ of integration is being
drawn in which the tension between society and the individual (or nation state
and citizen) is being replaced by a tension between tendencies towards regio-
nalisation and tendencies towards internationalisation (Smelser, 1997; see also
Bauman, 1992).
In addition, many commentators point to the experience of twentieth- and
twenty-first-century western societies that have experienced large or significant
migration inflows, especially in Europe and the New Worlds of the Americas
and Australasia. These migrant flows, especially in the European cases, have
Tensions: Civilizations and modernities 127
exposed, and indeed challenged the territories of nation states, thus blurring
their boundaries. Migrant flows have also challenged the sense of ethnic core
of these nation states, and, thus, the way in which these have been idealised as
part of the myths and identity of the receiving nations. This experience of
migration and the cultural diversity that has stemmed from it has also been
termed a multicultural one, or one that, following Maria Markus. can also be
termed cultural hybridisation – ‘the crossing of … boundaries in potentially
endless combinations of the new and the old’ (Markus, 1998; Pieterse, 1995).
However, this postmodern sociological assessment that views the con-
temporary period as one that revolves around post-nationalism, tribalism and
globalisation, minimises a more complex set of configurations. The assumed
current trend towards trans- or – post- – nationalism is underwritten by a long
history of nation state formation. In this context, the language of modernisation
can be read as a metaphor for the extension and national institutionalisation
of some or all of these aspects. In this way, it is more accurate to speak of a
selective development and institutionalisation of features that belong to political
modernity which include democratisation, the development of bounded terri-
tories and the formation of national identities, alongside the processes of
globalisation and regionalisation. These processes of development can be
viewed as selective because they are constituted as dynamics in their own
right. They may draw on other aspects, which may also become privileged
points of orientation by collective social actors in either positive or negative
ways. Furthermore, these selective political developments compete with, and
even give rise to, renewed forms of selective localisms. This complex config-
uration means that attempts by national and transnational political and
bureaucratic arrangements which aim at functional integration and systemic
coordination such as the European Union, are not so much resisted (Foucault),
or result in a colonised lifeworld (Habermas), but rather reside within a field
of tensions in which conflicts are a permanent condition, and outcomes
cannot be prejudged.
This study, then, takes a different, although not unrelated tack on these
issues. Instead of invoking the metaphors of ‘blurring’ or ‘hybridity’ it will argue
that the modern, internationally contextualised nation state and the forms of
citizenship that it is identified with are the result of the selective and competing
dimensions of political modernity. These selective processes thus fracture the
distinction between state and civil society through which social and political
reality has been conventionally thought, and opens onto the plurality of pro-
cesses and sites. Moreover, they can be given further conceptual focus and
definition if approached at least initially from the vantage points of territoriality,
identity, sovereignty, democracy and publicity. Thus, and as has been noted
by many commentators, nation state and citizenship is a site of condensation –
and here it is viewed as a site of condensation of the five processes just indicated
(Habermas, 1996, 1997; Nora, 1989; Heater, 1990).
In order to further elaborate, this complexity can be further drawn out in
the following schematic way which suggests that each aspect itself has its own
128 Political modernities
internal dimensions. In terms of the first – territoriality – the nation state is
counterpointed by a populace and communities who are defined as belonging to
this nation state, but who may also draw on other cultural and regional bases for
identity (A. Smith, 1986, 1988; Anderson, 1983). Moreover, the idea of the
sovereignty of the nation state is informed by two counterposing traditions. In
one, the command of the ‘prince’ (the personalisation of power) is prioritised,
while in another, the codification of law (juridical sovereignty) is. Each though
is opposed by a tradition of civic sovereignty, which is viewed as a rulership of
power based on the idea of the non-inheritable and non-transferable sanctity of
‘the people’ (Pocock, 1985; Baker, 1989). The democratic aspect of the nation
state, if it is at all present and this cannot be assumed, has competed between
two different models of democracy, a mediated or representative one, with its
counterpart of direct or unmediated democracy. Furthermore, theories of
democratic practice tend to fall also into two camps, one emphasising the
procedural nature through which decisions may be reached consensually, and
another one stressing the values that are articulated, and, in fact, are required
as background assumptions in the course of reaching decisions democratically
(Habermas, 1996; Heller, 1985, 1991). Moreover, models of democracy and its
practices assume high levels of the transparency of power and decision making,
a transparency that also assumes publicity, or the existence of a political public
sphere. However, democracy and the idea of the public are not coterminus,
neither historically, nor conceptually. The public itself has been subject to
shifting definitions in which it is not only defined as a critico-reflexive social
space for the articulation (in whatever forms) of cultural patterns and social
conflict, but also as space for specific civic conduct. Furthermore, it has also
been interpreted as a social conduit for the integration of a citizenry into
democratic life, and in this light the institutional arrangements, which are
entered into voluntarily, are emphasised from this often corporatist point of
view (Hegel, 1979; Durkheim, 1992). Alternatively, the notion of the public
also shows what might be termed administrative slippage, where it (the
public) is identified simply as a juridical‒administrative‒welfare apparatus
that services an amorphous citizenry, the membership of which then has to be
determined. This latter notion of the public is, thus, most closely allied with
territorial and sovereign notions of the nation state (Fraser, 1987; Cohen and
Arato, 1992).
Thus, citizenship is a site of condensation where national and cultural or
local identity, the exercise of a sovereign state’s explicit power, the vocabularies
of participation, and publicly orientated activities, reflexivity and conduct
converge and coalesce.1 In other words, citizenship cannot be reduced to the
democratic moment or the territorial and administrative imperatives of nation
building, and the forms of collective identity associated with this. Even toge-
ther, these two aspects cannot coextensively capture the complexity of modern
citizenship. This chapter is divided into two sections in order to nonetheless
explore some, but not all, of its aspects. The first section explores the image of
the condensation of citizenship, introduced above, where the nation state is a
Tensions: Civilizations and modernities 129
site for the coalescence of its different meanings. This section begins with the
territorial and administrative imperatives of nation building, before turning to
other aspects concerned with sovereignty and democracy. In a second section
it is argued that the sovereign and democratic aspects of the nation state,
where they exist together, require a particular cultural horizon to orient them,
even in the context of their formal institutionalisation in legal codes and
practices. This horizon is the horizon of symmetrical reciprocity. This horizon
will be explored through work by Marcel Mauss, especially The Gift, and
Agnes Heller, especially A Philosophy of Morals.

The condensation of citizenship

The territorially bound nation state is the most universal social form in
modernity, and typifies the context of modern citizenship at its rawest. As
Giddens states in Nation State and Violence, ‘the nation state is a power
container whose administrative purview corresponds exactly to its territorial
delimitation’ (Giddens, 1985: 172; Mann, 1986: 198). This is in marked contrast
to pre-modern state forms, the reach of power of which only approximated
boundaries that were often fluid and impossible to monitor and control
because of their distance from the central organising agency or its regional
agent. Moreover, conflicts over imagined, as much as real, borders also con-
tributed to this fluidity. Disputes occurred by those living on or close by
instituted territorial boundaries, by the particular state in question, or by
other states pursuing their own imperative of conquest and control.2
Against this schematic background, and in the wake of Clausewitz, Hintze,
Weber and Elias, there are three major inventions that denote the historical
formation and coherence of the nation state and the primary organisational form
through which sovereignty – in both dimensions outlined above – is expressed.
This historical formation includes European Absolutism in its phase of
imperial reach, which is earlier and different from the later phase of nation-
state nineteenth-century colonialism. The inclusion of European Absolutism
in the temporal field of political modernity gives to it (political modernity) a
longer history than other accounts beginning with the eighteenth century, be
it the Enlightenment (Habermas), the French Revolution (Marx), or the
Napoleonic proto-praetorian centralisation of the French State (Foucault). The
three inventions, which, to be sure, lean on prior historical forms of explicit
power, are: (i) the extension and rationalisation of administrative apparatuses,
rules of governance and articulations of explicit power; (ii) the redefinition of
war and thus military force neither as a style of life conducted by an elite, nor
an arbitrary tool for conquest, but as a planned, rationalised form of social
organisation which is part of the nation state’s reflexive capacity to both
extend its explicit power and monitor external relations within a global or
internationalised context; (iii) the invention of the category and notion of
territorial or national citizenship. In this chapter, I will concentrate on the
latter – the modern form of citizenship.
130 Political modernities
The nation state is a state form that has clearly demarcated boundaries
between it and neighbouring territories, and can equate the dimension of terri-
torial space with the dimension of explicit power, especially in the form of
state-centred or juridical sovereignty. The territorial imperative of control and
conquest is supplemented and generally muted by an imperative of internal
identification and monitoring by the nation state of those who live within its
borders, either permanently or temporarily. Likewise, those living inside the
nation state identify as belonging to it as an ideal or imagined community
(Elias, 1996; Anderson, 1983).3 Social integration, then, occurs at the level of
the nation, which is viewed as a broader collectivity and basis for identity
than either an ethnic core or an elite status group.
Nonetheless, an ethnic core exists which simultaneously can be activated as
a basis for national identity and nation building, and subordinated to the new
form of social integration. In this context, a double and often explosive
paradox occurs, whereby the ethnic community shares ‘a myth of common
descent and a corresponding sense of solidarity’ constituted through the idea of
ethnicity, while simultaneously subsuming this identity under a superordinate
one which is also constituted through a sense of shared history, a distinctive
and shared language and culture, and an association with a shared territory
(Arnason, 1990a: 217). This mixture of ethnic core and nation building has
been particularly explosive in two contexts. The first was the multi-ethnic
nations of the Old World which emerged out of the crises and collapse of, in
particular, the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires, while the second was
the immigrant societies of the New Worlds of the Americas and Australasia,
where, apart from competing and coalescing ethnic groups, there was also the
confrontation by these groups, and often in a united way, with the indigenous
populations. According to Anthony Smith, the ethnic and nation-building
components are interdependent, although the ethnic antecedents of the modern
state are a pre-modern feature of the nation that may come into conflict with
the modern ones at any time (Arnason, 1990a; Smith, 1986, 1988; Gellner,
1983; Kohn, 1967; Armstrong, 1982).
The paradox or tension between ethnicity and nation is partly resolved, or
is suspended – if only for an indeterminate period – by a process of homo-
genisation at the cultural level through nationalism, and at the political one
through the category of citizenship. The category of citizenship is the formal
and trans-communal mechanism that integrates an anonymous and even
polymorphous population who inhabit the territory of a nation state into its
regulatory system. Or to put it another way, territorial, or national citizenship,
in this instance, is a mechanism for the administrative control of the movement
of a nation’s inhabitants within and across its borders. It thus denotes the
nation state’s preoccupation with the territory and its inhabitants over which
it has jurisdiction, and includes determinations of inclusion and exclusion,
entry and exit (Brubaker, 1989; Breton, 1988). What I will term national‒
juridical citizenship, thus, is a point of condensation where the territorially
determined nation state, its formal‒legal administrative prerogatives, and its
Tensions: Civilizations and modernities 131
identity securing mechanisms intersect and coalesce. In this context, territo-
rially based national‒juridical citizenship may also become a point where
ethnie and the nation coincide. Thus, an accident of birth binds people to a
nation’s soil ‘on the basis of legally established criteria and procedures’
(Breton, 1988: 87).
Nonetheless, a concentration on citizenship from the perspective of the
national‒juridical nature of the nation state obscures other relevant versions
of it. Giddens, for one, makes the useful distinction between citizenship,
nationalism and sovereignty by drawing on the work of T. H. Marshall who
generates a notion of citizenship as the historical accumulation of rights –
first, civil, then political, and last, social (Giddens, 1985: 203–209; Marshall,
1950: 1–85). In contrast to Marshall, who argues that these rights of citizen-
ship develop in a cumulative process, each dynamic of citizenship need not set
the conditions nor predetermine the succeeding one, and may indeed contest
the others. This means that social citizenship may not be the last type of
citizenship to make its mark. Following Mann and Elias, rather than either
Marshall or Giddens, in this instance, social citizenship is an internal aspect
of the state’s prerogative concerning the definition of who a citizen is, and by
extension his/her integration into ‘the infrastructural power of the state’.
While the British case (which Marshall views ideal-typically) presupposes a
contestatory model through which social and economic rights and benefits
were won and accrued by social movements, especially the labour movement
and middle-class professionals, Mann and Elias argue that social citizenship
was a determining characteristic of the state’s own ability to integrate a citizenry
‘from above’. This was also due to its capacity to levy taxation, which, in the
German case, for example, predated political citizenship especially (Mann,
1987; Elias, 1996).
Neither Giddens, nor Elias, nor Mann equates citizenship per se with
its national‒juridical nature. However, Giddens, in particular, is primarily
concerned with typologies of surveillance, while Elias is concerned with the
power ratios or figurations between groups who either impose or are subject
to wide-ranging civilising processes that include ones of including or excluding
identity formation (Giddens, 1992; Giddens, 1996; Held, 1989: 198). My aim,
here, though, is to stress citizenship’s multidimensional features. In contrast to
Giddens and Marshall, though, it is suggested here that modern citizenship
can be divided into four broad types which may or may not intersect, and
which may or may not be more or less totalitarian or democratic. These types
are national–juridical citizenship, political–public citizenship, economic–social
citizenship and cosmopolitan citizenship. Each forms an arena of contestation
and conflict with the other types, as well as with the explicit power of the
nation state.4
The following discussion leaves to one side the otherwise important
dimensions of economic-social citizenship. In the context of a discussion con-
cerning the blurring of local, national and global political and cultural
boundaries in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries the most
132 Political modernities
acute point of tension between the nation state and the four modalities of
citizenship occurs along the fault line between the global, national and local
forms and citizenship’s national–juridical and political–public interpretations
and practices, and it is with this that the remainder of this section is primarily
concerned. The fault line exists as a tension between particularistic perceptions
and practices bound to the context of a specific nation state, and its invented
nationalisms and traditions, and ones that either go beyond them, or are
capable of interacting with them in an ongoing and open-ended way.
According to Brubaker, the nation state is doubly bounded by territory and
membership (Brubaker, 1989: 14). From a national‒juridical perspective, citi-
zenship is a neat category – one either is or is not a member of a state.
However, from political‒public perspectives, the issue of membership is more
complex, especially if it is tied to questions of the multiple forms of life that
constitute or intersect any nation state, especially in a global context. In order
to view the tensions involved here, it is worth revisiting the question of citi-
zenship, but this time from the vantage points of the way it is constructed not
only juridico-nationally, but also through the conditions of its political‒public
Citizenship in modernity, then, refers not only to the ideals and activities of
the citizen as a member of a political community, the image inherited from both
Greek and Roman antiquity, and the medieval city, but also to the complex
array of discrete phenomena that revolve around nation state formation. This
interpretation supplements the view of citizenship in the tradition of republican
political philosophy that views it as having an internal relation to the question
of rulership or sovereignty. To be sure, this conventional interpretation also
belongs to the self-understanding of the eighteenth century particularly.
However, from the vantage point of the formation of nation states a cleavage
was being forged which presented its inhabitants as, pace Marx, people living
in, or between, two worlds – citizens of a territorial state, and real, or potential,
sovereigns of it (Walzer, 1974; Nisbet, 1974; Pateman, 1989).5 In other words,
and as indicated above, sovereignty was being redefined along two axes –
from the vantage point of the nation state, and from the vantage point of citizens
who aspired to participate in its condition of explicit power. Each vantage
point redefined the nature of rulership in a modern register. National‒juridical
citizenship is the most recent development of the more general notion of
citizenship and sits uncomfortably with its more classical origins as a more
distinctly political category.
Moreover, as many writers have pointed out, especially if the French case is
taken paradigmatically, a historical conflation occurs between the different
aspects of nation building, republican sovereignty and national citizenships.
As Habermas states, ‘with the French Revolution, the “nation” became the
source of state sovereignty …’ (Habermas, 1997a: 494). In other words, in the
context of the French Revolution, the administrative sovereign state that gives
the law converged with nation building that was viewed as a unified and
homogenous cultural project. Within the French case, this unified cultural
Tensions: Civilizations and modernities 133
project became identified with a view of sovereignty that originated from the
body of ‘le peuple’ (Baker, 1989: 848). As Baker goes on to say,

in the simplest of terms, national sovereignty was created when the

French revolution transferred sovereign power from the crown to the
nation … As a collective being the nation was part of a natural order,
prior to all history, the ground of history.
(Baker, 1989: 850–851)

This meant that the double meaning of sovereignty indicated above became
fused directly with that of the nation. Baker and Habermas both point to the
internal tension of this fusion in terms of the issue of sovereignty.

[O]nce sovereignty was held to be inherent in the body of the nation in

this way, the danger of its alienation from the nation to the representative
assembly – the threatening possibility that a particular will might be
substituted for the real will of the nation – became ever present.
(Baker, 1989: 853; see Habermas, 1997a: 495–496)

In other words, the nation, in its primordial naturalisation as the wellspring of

identity and, hence, citizenship, became the source from which citizens could
only be alienated and identity ruptured. The problem, then, is the subsumption
of republican sovereignty by national identity and its fusion with the adminis-
trative state. A cultural horizon of the republican nation was formed which is
at once viewed politically and primordially as the filter through which questions
of social integration are solved. To challenge the cultural homogeneity of the
nation is simultaneously to challenge its political will.
However, this Jacobin version of French political correctness, as it has been
termed by Wieviorka, should be read as a specific instance in a more variegated
and critical landscape of citizenships (Wieviorka, 1996; see also Galeotti, 1998).
Habermas, for example, points to the patterns of procedural democracy that
have displaced both ethnie and nation as the primary mechanisms of social inte-
gration of a citizenship into its nation state, at least in the West (Habermas, 1996:
281–294, 1997a). According to him, in modern democracies questions of sover-
eignty and their democratic solution within the nation state can only be
answered satisfactorily through a constitution that normatively builds in ‘mutual
respect even among strangers’ (Habermas, 1997a: 460). The historical coex-
istence between the issues of sovereignty and democracy within the horizon of
the nation state of the European type, in Habermas’s view, enables two problems
to be solved simultaneously through the abstract medium of the constitution.
The constitution is viewed by Habermas as an embodied discursive argument,
and as such establishes and mediates a democratic mode of legitimation on the
basis of a new and more abstract form of social integration in the form of legally
mediated solidarity and procedural forms of political participation (Habermas,
1996: 284; 1997a: 447–462).
134 Political modernities
To be sure, and without overlooking Habermas’s recognition of the tension
that exists between national and republican identities of the nation state and
its citizenry, what is of interest in this context is his insistence on the internal
relation between law – juridical sovereignty – and democracy. Habermas
argues that modern law is ‘a medium that allows for a much more abstract
notion of civic or public autonomy’ (1997a: 505). Modern law guarantees
freedom because it is backed by a system of norms that are both coercive and
positive, and it is this double feature that enables modern law to become
associated with the issue of political legitimacy. As he says,

[t]he formal properties of coercion and positivity are associated with the
claim to legitimacy: the fact that norms backed by the threat of state
sanction stem from the changeable decisions of a political lawmaker is
linked with the expectation that these norms guarantee autonomy of all
legal persons equally.
(Habermas, 1997a: 447)

Moreover, the medium of law and its differentiation from moral concerns
enables rights to be activated by citizens in a setting that is institutionalised,
and constructs and gives legitimacy to them (citizens) as legal subjects
(Habermas, 1997a: 451–455). In this sense, law functions both as a guarantor
and as a ‘transmission belt’ that ‘simultaneously secures symmetrical relation-
ships of reciprocal recognition between abstract bearers of individual rights’
(1997a: 448–449).
According to Habermas, this legal constitutionalism of the modern democratic
state is internally buttressed by a specific form of reflexivity – democratic
reflexivity – that becomes the basis upon which modern law itself is con-
stituted. In Habermas’s view, this democratic reflexivity is formulated as ‘a
discursively achieved agreement’ in which laws and decisions are made and
remade on the basis of claims that are redeemable through practical‒rational
argumentation. However, it is here, at the core of his meta-theory, that a
tension emerges concerning the democratic discursive proceduralism that he
wishes to make the cornerstone of his theory of modern sovereign‒democratic
citizenship. As he is well aware, ‘law is not a narcistically self-enclosed system,
but is nourished by a democratic Sittlichkeit of enfranchised citizens and a
liberal political culture that meets it halfway’ (Habermas 1997a: 461). Hence,
internal to the formation of a legal‒democratic system is a cultural form that
orientates and gives it depth. As Habermas states, ‘one starts with the horizontal
sociation of citizens who, recognising one another as equals, mutually accord
rights to one another’ (Habermas, 1997a: 457).
This aspect of a co-determining cultural horizon is present throughout
Habermas’s work as a whole, and informs his writings on nationalism, sovereignty
and citizenship. As he points out, in a post-metaphysical and internationally
interdependent world in which collectively binding world views have been
replaced by patterns of de-traditionalisation, as well as pluralised contexts
Tensions: Civilizations and modernities 135
which themselves challenge homogenous cultures, democratic Sittlichkeit
provides a force for both orientation and social integration. As he says:

my suspicion is that a liberal political culture can hold together multi-

cultural societies only if democratic citizenship pays in terms not only of
liberal and political rights, but also of social and cultural rights as well …
Democratic citizenship develops its force of social integration, that is
to say it generates solidarity between strangers, if it can be recognised
and appreciated as the mechanism by which the legal and material
infrastructure of actually preferred forms of life is secured.
(Habermas, 1996: 290)

However, what occurs here is a tension between the linguistic/procedural turn

in Habermas’s work and a latent anthropological‒cultural current that is also
present. It is not the purpose to explore this tension here, but to identify and
draw on it as a way of indicating a necessary background point of orientation
or horizon through which both the formal‒legal democratic culture is con-
stituted, and a mode of sociability that is internal to this culture. The formal‒
legal institutionalisation of democracy already presupposes some general
background assumptions or prejudices (Gadamer) concerning both the
conduct of political and sovereign life, and the forms of sociability through
which this might be conducted.
I wish to explore this horizon in the following section, not through an
immanent reading of his work where such an investigation is effectively
blocked, but initially through Mauss’s The Gift, and then the work of Agnes
Heller. For each, the dialectic of mutual recognition is transposed into the
more robust formulation of a horizon of symmetrical reciprocity. It is this that
provides the horizon beyond homogenous national–juridical citizenship and
points towards a pluralist, outward looking, or what will be termed here,
cosmopolitan citizenship. Cosmopolitan citizenship can be viewed as a supple-
ment to political–public citizenship, which may contain a tendency towards
national closure at its core when dovetailed with national–juridical citizenship,
as has been indicated in the case of the ‘French’ conflation described above.
Cosmopolitan citizenship places an emphasis on the real or potential mutual
recognition of, and reciprocity, between other forms of life, rather than on an
agreement about, or between, them. This background assumption of recognition
and reciprocity, which following the work of Mauss and Heller is here termed
symmetrical reciprocity, may even alter the version of mutuality built into
Habermas’s position.

An intersubjective Horizon of cosmopolitan citizenship:

Symmetrical reciprocity
Mauss’s The Gift can be seen as a corrective to systemic approaches that not
only absorb the social actor into the system, but also conceal from view the
136 Political modernities
dynamics and processes of interaction between social actors through which
any social system is co-constituted and brought forward.6 Furthermore,
Mauss’s work demonstrates that there is a horizon of meaning to these social
interactions, and that this horizon is not constituted only in linguistic terms,
or rationally. Rational discourse is the end result of an imaginary horizon
(Castoriadis) without which sociability can neither be entered into nor
understood (Castoriadis, 1987). The trope of the gift introduces a critico-
hermeneutic perspective through which his critique of modernity unfolds, a
critique which is less central to the concerns of this chapter, than is the
structure of reciprocity itself.7
Mauss’s analysis of the gift relation is informed by an archaic‒heroic horizon –
it is, in Clausewitzian terms, a form of war by other means (Mauss, 1990: 35).
In other words, his analysis, especially of the potlatch of the North-western
indigenous Americans, focuses on the agonistic and contestatory dimension
of gift exchanges where ‘the principles of rivalry and antagonism are basic’
(Mauss, 1990: 35). Here, ‘essentially usurious and extravagant, [the potlatch
gift relation] is above all a struggle among nobles to determine their position
in the hierarchy to the ultimate benefit, if they are successful, of their own
clans’ (Mauss, 1990: 4–5; 35). As such, and especially in the context of the
Polynesian kula, defeat, if not something experienced in battle, is experienced
either in the receiver’s inability to repay with greater bestowal a gift, or not to
repay the gift at all, the result of which is dishonour and shame. As Mauss
remarks with a cross-civilisational reference,

to lose one’s face is to lose one’s spirit, which is truly the ‘face’, the dancing
mask, the right to incarnate a spirit and wear an emblem or totem. It is
the veritable persona which is at stake, and it can be lost in the potlatch
just as it can be lost in the game of gift giving [generally], in war or
through some error in ritual.
(Mauss, 1990: 38)

However, Mauss’s analysis can also be enjoined as a supplement to Habermas’s

more formalistic position because unlike him, Mauss argues that although
modern (economic) exchanges are saturated by utilitarianism, this neither
exhausts nor completely colonises the entire range of social interactions. This
could also be said for formal democratic exchanges. According to Mauss,
while the gift relation is constructed and analysed by means of specific
civilisations – the Polynesian, northwest American – nonetheless, for him, it is
not reducible to these civilizational forms alone. The gift relation is an ‘empirical
universal’ (Heller) that denotes a common form of reciprocity – symmetrical
reciprocity – where many dimensions of human life and action intersect and
condense – the cognitive, the moral‒ethical, the emotional. As he says,

the basis of moral action is general; it is common to societies of the

highest degree of evolution, to those of the future and to those of least
Tensions: Civilizations and modernities 137
advancement. Here we touch bedrock. We are talking no longer in terms
of law. We are talking of men and groups since it is they, society and their
sentiments that are in action all the time.
(Mauss, 1990: 68)

In this context, the structure that Mauss gives to the gift relation can be
separated, at a formal level, from the agonistic dimensions that he attributes
to the potlatch. As such, it can then be drawn on as a model for non-violent,
symmetrical reciprocity.8
If we abstract from the Polynesian system of total gift exchanges that
Mauss presents, a formal structure emerges around three principle obliga-
tions: an obligation to give, to receive and to repay. This constitutes a rela-
tion of symmetrical reciprocity in which ‘a series of rights and duties about
consuming and repaying [exists] side by side with rights and duties about
giving and receiving’ (Mauss, 1990: 11). Symmetrical reciprocity assumes,
then, a relationship as well as reciprocity. As Heller notes, ‘where one party
gives and the other does not receive there is no relationship. Where one
party only gives and the other only receives there is a relationship but no
reciprocity’ (Heller, 1990: 53). Gifts are tokens of recognition that constitute
a particular intersubjectivity through which social action is conducted as a
form of symmetrical reciprocity. The social actor enters this relation, and
thus, his/her relations with others are constituted in a particular way. Moreover,
following Mauss’s implicit argument, these obligations are all publicly con-
stituted. They do not belong to a ‘private language’ (Mauss, 1990: 31–45).
In this sense, and following Heller rather than Mauss here, actions of symme-
trical reciprocity are interactions between two parties which always assume a
public dimension, even if they take place within the private sphere or
everyday life (Heller, 1990: 56).
In this context Agnes Heller’s work can be referred to more systematically
in order to extrapolate and extend Mauss’s implicit argument, and in this way
also frame it in the more action-orientated manner that is implicit in it. Heller’s
argument combines an anthropological universality (which we have seen
above) with a recognition of the historical shifts in patterns of social action.
From the background of this universality Heller can address the issue of their
historical transformations. She argues that even in the condition of post-
traditional, multicultural and pluralised modernity, social action has not been
emptied of either orientative principles or depth of meaning. Heller’s recom-
mendation is that the classical triad of matter-paideia-form that typifies
theories of social action in the Aristotelian tradition should be replaced by a
triad of determinations-conduct-learning processes. In other words, patterns
of action are not reducible to their linguistic form only, rather her triad points
to the ways in which social actions are orientative principles that manifest
themselves concretely. Conduct is the most important because, for her,
‘whereas as “form” suggests perfection, fulfilment, completeness … conduct is
open-ended, something which goes on and on; it is the identity of being and
138 Political modernities
becoming’ (Heller, 1990: 67). In other words, her triad is one that emits the
contingency that is a hallmark of modernity, generally.
Moreover, over and above the recognition of a contingent, post-traditional
and post-metaphysical world, Heller argues that conduct also encompasses
the complexity of the networks of human interactions that are sedimented in
institutions and repeated time and again in social interactions, and as such
are always collective endeavours (Heller, 1990: 67). For her, this complex
condition of a form of life, and even one that is now both contingent and
pluralised, continues to constitute and address the patterns of interaction and
forms of meaning which are required for a form of life to have depth.
According to Heller, giving is the overarching category, and it is assumed
by those who are caught in its web, to be ongoing across time and space. Gift
giving is not constituted or hampered by social or temporal boundaries. As
both Mauss and Heller argue, irrespective of either their ritual or informal
context, the repayment of a gift can be carried forward in time, and it is only
its interruption (that is, its non-return) that throws this counterfactuality into
relief. However, there are two significant differences between their analyses. In
the archaic civilisations that Mauss analyses, all natural objects as well as social
beings can be subject to gift exchanges – from shells, to slaves, to women.
Symmetrical reciprocity refers only to reciprocity among persons of equal
standing. In Mauss’s analysis, the equalisation is one that occurs between
people usually within the same status group or hierarchical position. It is this
status dimension that adds the agonistic aspect to the symmetrical reciprocity
of gift giving. However, within Heller’s more reflexively modern formulation
symmetrical reciprocity is constituted through the recognition of the person
qua person, that is, men and women ‘recognise each other’s autonomy and
have respect for each other’s personality’ (Heller, 1990: 67).
Second, within Mauss’s formulation and analysis of gift giving the dimension
of shame is a central feature internal to it. However, within the context of
modernity, shame, as an emotional/cultural force within the personality, is
loosened as the form of sanction. An expectation of the reciprocation of a ‘gift’ is
muted by the recognition of another’s autonomy. While there continues to be a
sanction involved in symmetric reciprocal interactions, the sanction is mediated
by the heightened sense of the values of personhood and autonomy that
accompanies it. This means that an increased distance and detachment between
‘gift-givers’ occurs. Symmetrical reciprocity remains only an orientative principle,
and its concrete form becomes more fluid and open-ended. The result of this
detached form of symmetrical reciprocity is a tension between intercourse and
isolation. Under these conditions of autonomy and distance between self and
other, symmetrical reciprocity, then, relinquishes the presumption of auto-
matic and unreflective mutuality; rather, it requires a reflective judgement – a
paideia – through which the contingency of the intercourse, as well as its
nuances, joys and disappointments can be reflected on and learnt from.
Thus, in drawing and extrapolating from Mauss’s, as well as Heller’s,
formal models, gift giving, receiving and repaying establish a framework for a
Tensions: Civilizations and modernities 139
common point of reference, as well as a framework for sanctions, limits and
reflective judgement. This field of symmetrical reciprocity is both serious and
magnanimous, and thus provides a counter-model to cultures of both shame
and mean-spirited ressentiment. Those who pass through the gift relation are
opened by it, but in a way that enhances, rather than reduces the social actors,
especially in terms of their freedom and autonomy – on both sides of the relation.
Moreover, this relation of symmetrical reciprocity cannot be separated from
the highly charged and fused relation between the ‘spirit’ of the gift, a coex-
istence that Mauss, for example, analyses under the heading of the Maori
toanga. In this context, the ‘personification of things’ and the ‘thingification
of persons’ operates as a force that binds the relation of symmetrical reciprocity
together. If Habermas’s argument concerning the spheres of reason, and its
differentiation into proper domains of rationality is followed, the archaic
societies and their patterns of social relations that Mauss presents would
denote a pre-modern conflation between nature and society (the naturalisation
of society and the socialisation of nature) (Habermas, 1984: 48–52). Yet,
Mauss’s and Heller’s analyses, rather than pointing towards an incomplete
process of cultural differentiation, open a horizon of meaning that is the
necessary, although not fully articulable, dimension through which the social
relation of symmetrical reciprocity is constituted.9
This particular horizon, which is also the horizon of sociability, is the
horizon of symmetrical reciprocity which is an abstract and non-personalised,
yet understood point of reference. As Mauss states, ‘The pattern of symmetrical
and reciprocal rights is not difficult to understand if we realise that it is first and
foremost a pattern of spiritual bonds …’ (Mauss, 1990: 11). Mauss terms this
horizon a contract. His point, though, is that this mode of interaction ‘leans on’
an irreducible imaginary horizon (Castoriadis, 1987). In Heller’s terms, while
the conditions of giving, receiving and reciprocating are constituted according
to a value horizon of freedom and autonomy, they are intersubjectively
co-constituted and stabilised through a paradigm of symmetrical reciprocity.
Symmetrical reciprocity is thus one of the many horizons to which modern
forms of citizenship may be oriented. Specifically, it is the horizon to which
the cosmopolitan type is orientated. Cosmopolitanism can be read in a way
that emphasises both the intersections of cultures in a context of an increased
recognition and acceptance of cultural diversity. In this sense, cosmopolitanism
refers not only to the arbitrary boundaries between cultures, but also to a
transformation in both content and form that occurs once cultures interact.
In this perspective, then, the issue remains not simply one of forms of social
integration, hybridisation and new ‘civilisational’ or multicultural mosaics.
Rather, it concerns the relationships that are entered into and established
between diverse cultures in either utopic or dystopic forms. As Hannerz has
pointed out,

cosmopolitanism in a stricter sense includes a stance towards diversity

itself, toward the co-existence of cultures in the individual experience. A
140 Political modernities
more genuine cosmopolitanism is first of all an orientation, a willingness
to engage with the Other. It is an intellectual and aesthetic stance of
openness toward divergent cultural experiences, a search for contrasts
rather than uniformity.
(Hannerz, 1990: 239, emphasis added)

However, as Agnes Heller has also noted, an aesthetic prioritisation of diversity

and interaction with others often leads to a preoccupation with the question
of authenticity and thus towards the paradoxical closure of diversity, rather
than its continuing openness (Heller, 2011, see also Heller, 1996: 25–42; Waldron,
1995: 93–119). If, along with other diverse signature tunes of modernity from
industrialism and techno-science to aesthetics and consumerism, national, global
and local identities all claim sovereignty over the modern soul, then the issue
becomes how cultures in the context of diversity remain open to the possibility of
interaction, rather than close themselves off from meaningful interaction on the
grounds of an imputed authenticity. The type of interaction that could be the
basis for such conditions of diversity is the question that has preoccupied this
chapter. It has been argued that a culture and mode of symmetrical reciprocity
provides one, but not the only, stance towards such diversity. Moreover, it also
provides a boundary to social life and interaction because of its assumption of
reciprocity. In this sense, symmetrical reciprocity is open-endedness with limits.
Viewed in this way, this version of cosmopolitanism indicates two weaknesses
of dialectic of globalisation. First, this dialectic blurs boundaries between
nation states in a way that decreases their prerogatives of identity and sover-
eignty and increases the likelihood of hybrid cultural forms once local,
national and diaspora cultures overlap and intermingle (Hannerz, 1990: 239).
However, globalisation is not only synonymous with an assumed irresistible
movement towards either uniformity or diversification. It also provides a
context in which not only old particularisms can be reaffirmed and reconso-
lidated, but also new ones can form (Arnason, 1996: 52). Moreover, from the
point of view of the nation state’s longevity, the ability of the nation state to
develop principles of social integration has been crucial to the narrative of its
historical success as an organisational and territorial form. The key invention
for this integration has been the various types of citizenship, discussed above.
As Mann indicates in his ‘Nation States in Europe and other Continents:
Diversifying, Developing, Not Dying’, nation states have not disappeared in
the wake of globalisation; rather they remain a continuing context in which
interactions between them, their own cultural identities, the new localisms
and wider global environments continue to occur. Indeed, they continue to
underwrite many of these interactions (Mann, 1996: 298).
Cosmopolitanism does not, then, simply refer to the idea of world citizenship
or multiple citizenships brought under the umbrella of transnational or
supranational entities, such as the European Union, no matter how important
these arrangements might be for the relationship between, and transition
from, denizen to citizen (Hammar, 1990; Brubaker, 1989). It refers to the
Tensions: Civilizations and modernities 141
existence of a background orientative principle of symmetrical reciprocity
that exists prior to its own codification and institutionalisation – to a cultural
experience and a type of sociability.

1 The term explicit power is taken from Castoriadis and denotes the ability by social
agents and institutions to ‘make sanction-bearing decisions about what is to be
done and not to be done, that can legislate, “execute” decisions, settle points of
litigation and govern’ (Castoriadis, 1997a: 4).
2 The theorisation of the state has a chequered history in classical social theory.
Weber and Durkheim are more sensitive to this issue than Marx, although it has
been argued, correctly by such writers as Perry Anderson, that there is a proto-theory
of the state in Marx’s work that is not reliant on a theory of capitalism. By mid- to
late twentieth-century social theory the state in both its imperial and national forms
had become a central topic, propelled by three different directions – neo-functionalist
modernisation theory, its critique through dependency and world systems theory,
and neo-Weberianism represented in part by the work of Anthony Giddens. Two
other figures are crucial for the introduction and continued interest in the state form
in contemporary social theory – Norbert Elias and more importantly Michel Foucault.
As the neo-Weberian approaches will be the implicit point of reference for discus-
sion about the state in this chapter it is worth making the following observations
about modernisation theory, its critique and the way these introduced the issue of
the state form into social theorising. At a descriptive level the interest in the state
emerged out of a conjunction of historical forces and ideas after the end of World
War II. The historical forces included the long collapse of the Ottoman, European
and British colonial Empires. The collapse began after World War I with the
defeat of Germany, the remnants of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires
and was more or less completed by the 1960s. The British, French, Dutch and
Belgians withdrew after a period of belligerence in the aftermath of World War II,
while Spain and Portugal withdrew from their colonies after a long period of
decline resulting from overreach, exhaustion and neglect. This collapse and with-
drawal resulted in the emergence of new nation states in Africa, the Middle East
and Asia. Other factors also included the emergence of the USA as a world power,
and the Soviet Union with its own imperialising ambitions, portraying itself as the
counter-model to so-called capitalism. Leaving to one side the later anti-totalitarian
revolutions of 1989 and the subsequent dissolution of the Soviet empire, the defeat
or collapse of the earlier imperial colonialisms and the consequent development of
nation states in Africa, Asia and the Middle East threw the specificity of the state
into relief in at least three ways. First, the development of these later nation states,
like those that developed earlier in Europe, was often due to particular histories,
patterns of settlement, violence and war. While nationalism was often viewed as
forming a sense of social cohesion, especially around an ethnic core, it also became a
set of mobilising symbols, feelings and aspirations around which forms of inclusion
and exclusion of particular racial and ethnic groups could develop. This has been
particularly the case in those multiracial and multi-ethnic configurations that
shared the same territory. Wars of independence gave way to often violently
articulated competing claims for power and a stake in participating in, shaping or
contesting the particular model of modernisation being pursued by the predominant
elite. In this context, new forms of power structures emerged, for example, in the
form of military autocracies. Alternatively, older forms of rule were reconsolidated,
which directed the forms of modernisation, rather than being simply subject to
142 Political modernities
them. To be sure, second, the adoption of a particular model of modernisation by
the nation state’s elite occurred in the context of external, and wider and more
encompassing geopolitical forms of power. This external context entailed that
forms of dependency emerged as the newly formed nation states were linked into
capitalist markets. In this context, economic modernisation in the forms of loans
and infrastructural development was linked to the specialisation of particular
forms of commodity production. It was assumed that this commodity specialisation
and infrastructural and technical development would provide the ‘spurt’ required
for economic ‘take-off’ and self-sustained growth that would result in a mature
capitalist society oriented to mass consumption (Rostow, 1990; So, 1990). However,
and third, as Gunder Frank and other dependency theorists argued in response, this
form of economic modernisation was a power relation of capitalist financial centres
over peripheral or semi-peripheral ones, which organised the peripheral ones to
produce commodities geared towards consumption at the centre. Specialised com-
modity production had the effect of not only tying these commodities, and the
particular division of labour within the labour market that this commodity pro-
duction entailed, to cycles within the globalising capitalist world economy, but also
disrupting cycles of traditional commodity production. The combined effect of
each of these processes has been increases in poverty, unemployment and national
debt (Gunder Frank, 1969, 1984; So, 1990). In contrast to Dependency Theory,
Wallerstein argued that these dependent nation states, which function as specialised
commodity producers and sources of low paid wage labour, are historically and
spatially integrated into a capitalist system that is more than a centre‒periphery
arrangement. For Wallerstein and world systems theorists, the spatial reorientation
of the world according to the logic of capitalist organisation of labour and commodity
markets encompasses the sixteenth century of European expansion and settlement,
British colonial dominance in the nineteenth century, a period of instability from
approximately 1870 until the middle of the mid-twentieth century encompassing
both World Wars, and the post-war period at least up until 1989. Viewed from a
world systems perspective, nation states, and especially the more recently formed
ones, belong to this longer five-phase history of colonialism. This history is nothing
but the continuous history of capitalism. The post-colonial experience is a more
recent phase in its longer history (Hopkins and Wallerstein, 1996; Wallerstein,
1979, 1989; Bergesen, 1980). Both dependency and world systems theory contested
the evolutionary and developmentalist assumptions that were built into conventional
social theory, and by so doing introduced spatial and differentiated power relations
into it. Moreover, both perspectives contributed to a theoretical and substantive
sensibility to regional and national particularities. However, within dependency
and world systems perspective, this sensibility was circumscribed because the
national and regional particularities were subsumed by, and subordinated to, the
logic of a global economic system. Recent arguments concerning globalisation in
the wake of the post-1989 and 9/11 worlds, as well as the 2008 global financial
crisis, have continued the legacy of both modernisation and world systems theories
with an even greater emphasis on the unequal, colonising, and integrating, crisis-
ridden capacity of capitalism at the levels of not only the economy, but also of
culture and politics, making the nation state obsolete. This and Chapters 9, 10 and 11
(this volume) challenge this assumption.
3 Elias states in The Germans that ‘nationalism is … a specific phenomenon character-
istic of large industrial state-societies at the level of development reached by the
nineteenth and twentieth century … A nationalist ethos implies a sense of solidarity
and obligation, not simply with regard to particular persons or a single person in a
ruling position as such, but with regard to a sovereign collectivity which the indivi-
dual concerned him – or herself forms with thousands or millions of others, which
here and now is organised as a state … and the attachment to which is mediated
Tensions: Civilizations and modernities 143
through specific symbols … Collectivities which generate a nationalist ethos are
structured in such a way that the individuals who form them can experience them –
more specifically, their emotion-laden symbols – as representatives of themselves …
The image of a nation experienced by an individual who forms part of that nation,
therefore, is also constituent of that person’s self-image’ (Elias, 1996: 151).
4 In the 1998 published version of this chapter I referred to these citizenship forms as
territorial/national citizenship, public and social citizenship, sovereign citizenship,
democratic citizenship and cosmopolitan citizenships. They were subsequently
changed in my ‘Strangers, Citizens, and Outsiders – Otherness, Multiculturalism
and the Cosmopolitan Imaginary in Mobile Societies’ to the formulations used in this
book (Rundell, 2004b). Heater, for one, argues that there are six distinct traditions of
citizenship – the republican, the cosmopolitan, the nationalist, the liberal, the totali-
tarian and the socialist (Heater, 1990: 318). This does not rule out the traditions and
world views that are drawn on to constitute these versions. While this will be dis-
cussed below more fully in terms of political‒public citizenship, Turner draws our
attention to various historical, national and cultural backgrounds of citizenship
versions, including Christian and Islamic, which will also be discussed in Chapter 9.
5 This image of an internal relation informs Pocock’s The Machiavellian Moment, and
MacIntyre’s After Virtue. Both authors would be critical of the modern diremption of
citizenship and sovereignty (Pocock, 1975; Pocock, 1985).
6 An intersubjective dimension in Durkheim’s work can be found in The Elementary
Forms of Religious Life, especially in the chapter on piacular rites (Durkheim, 1976).
7 Mauss’s reflections take place within the framework of a civilisational analysis that
both orients the problems and throws them into relief, as problems for modernity.
In Mauss’s civilisational framework, the intersection between institutional forms
and personality structure does not rely on a thought experiment that divides non-
state social forms from the invention of state ones, and it occurs as a nexus between
forms of intersubjectivity and cultural horizons. In Mauss’s view, civilisation is a
territorially extensive mode of relations and collective representations, which are
constituted according to a horizon of reciprocity.
8 This model of symmetrical reciprocity is different from the dialectic of recognition
that stems from Hegel and is developed by Axel Honneth in The Struggle for Recog-
nition and other works. The model here does not rely on a strong intersubjectivist
position in the manner of either Habermas or Honneth who build in and conflate a
normative perspective with an anthropological one. Rather, the implication of this
particular argument here is that relations of symmetrical reciprocity are one possibility
of the relations – or otherwise – that humans might establish with one another and
with other creatures. I have argued for three such intersubjective forms, against the
closed world of the psyche (Castoriadis) – love, power, friendship or symmetrical
reciprocity. I have also argued that there is another possibility – of cruelty, which is
a singular, reflexive and self-enclosed form. Each form of sociability is also con-
stituted as an imaginary horizon or value, which suggests that this form can neither
be fully conveyed nor exhausted (see Rundell, 2004a, 2013a, and Chapter 13).
9 See Levi-Strauss, 1987; Derrida, 1992; Castoriadis, 1987, 1997a.
9 From indigenous civilisation to
indigenous modernities

The concept of civilisation can be deployed as an interpretative device in

order to contribute to the way we can understand the impact of New World
settlement upon the indigenous peoples of Australia.1 It is argued that there was
a clash of civilisations – in a way that shares some affinities with Huntington’s
understanding in terms of configurations of power and culture (Huntington,
1996: 41–44). In this particular context this clash can be reconstructed
according to a politico-juridical notion of civilisation, which emphasises
sovereignty, and one that emphasises forms of power in terms of collective
representations. The outcome of this clash was the formation of a modernity
specific to the Australian indigenous population. Civilisation was never an
innocent, homogenous or uncontested term. It has always been an inter-
pretative device that has divided the world into those who are ‘civilised’ and
those who are not.

Civilisation and Australia’s founding myths

On their arrival in Botany Bay in 1788 the British brought two myths with
them that were to become the founding ones of the Australian New World.
The first was that the society they would build would be an extension of
metropolitan Britain. This would be the case not only in terms of its architecture
and use of space, but also its core cultural presuppositions. It would be white
and predominantly Protestant, notwithstanding the multi-racial and multi-ethnic
composition of the British Empire, and the vexing issues, for the British at
least, of Catholicism and the Irish question to its immediate west. This first
founding myth established the tenor of Australian racism throughout much of
the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This myth was overturned, officially at
least, only in 1966 when the Liberal-Country Party Commonwealth Government
abandoned racial discrimination (the White Australia Policy) as the basis for
its planned migration programmes. Culturally, a multiracial and multi-ethnic
composition has been official bipartisan policy since the 1970s (Reynolds,
The second and not unrelated myth was that the fifth continent was largely
uninhabited. This second myth was based on information supplied to the
Civilisation to indigenous modernities 145
British government by such people as Banks and Matra who had sailed with
Cook on The Endeavour. Speculating from this earlier voyage it was assumed
that even if the coast was inhabited, inland was not. And so when the soldiers,
convicts and settlers came in contact with the indigenous population an unusual
paradox emerged. An invisibilisation of the visible occurred, which enabled the
customs and laws of the indigenous people to be ignored. This second myth
was announced on the landing of the British Fleet in 1788, concretised and
enshrined by the British Privy Council in 1889 when it was reasserted that,
prior to 1788, no ownership or tenure of the land existed. This was the myth
of terra nullius and it was also reasserted on three other occasions during the
nineteenth century – in 1824, 1829 and 1879 (Reynolds, 1998).2 This second
myth has become Australia’s foundational story – of greater importance than
the mythic status of the British metropole. It became the greater foundational
myth because of its deeply imbedded presence for the way that settler Australians
understood themselves both culturally and as sovereigns.
This foundational myth of terra nullius did not come out of nowhere. For
the best part of 150 years the British, and the other European competitor
imperial powers, had been deploying the new navigational techniques to dis-
cover, colonise and settle in worlds hitherto unknown to them in the Americas,
Southeast Asia and the Pacific. In each case the indigenous populations were
fought, and treaties were entered into on the basis of a political recognition of
sovereignty in the process of colonisation. In some cases, for example India,
there was the recognition that some societies over which the British were
extending their rulership were as sophisticated as their own.
This mode of sophistication was given a name of civilisation, which in the
eighteenth century carried two predominant meanings. One was associated with
rulership, sovereignty and statehood, the other with customs and manners,
which would later be transposed into one of the many meanings of culture.
The idea of rulership was part of an intellectual debate that referred to two
competing political traditions that have long and deep roots within European
political thought, certainly from the fourteenth century onwards. These tradi-
tions are the juridical, which embodied the notion of right, and the republican,
which embodied the notion of virtue (Pocock, 1985). The juridical notion of
sovereignty referred to the codification of rights and liberties in law, which
exhibited an internal tension – one version referred to the rights of subjects,
another to the command of the prince or the demos in which the law is vested
that has power over subjects. This centralisation of power, which was synonymous
with statehood, also entailed that this formulation of juridical sovereignty
acquired a territory based, power-saturated administrative dimension. Rulership
and sovereignty were condensed to the ideas of juridical sovereignty over a
discrete territory.3
Furthermore, both juridical and republican notions of civilisation were
accompanied by an idea of a private sphere limited to economic, religious
and cultural freedoms. In this context, and with the assistance of the concept
of manners, a civilised life came to denote the refinement and enrichment of
146 Political modernities
personality through the cultivation of commerce and the arts. It was their
function to tame and refine the passions, and as Adam Ferguson would say,
polish manners (Ferguson, 1991 [1767]).
During the nineteenth century a further process of conceptual development
occurred. Civilisation, at least in the historical, anthropological and archae-
ological meanings of the term, came to be used taxonomically and objecti-
vistically to denote societal types that underwent processes of differentiation.
There are two key assumptions that buttressed one another – one of complexity
and one of evolution. These assumptions enabled the distinction between the
pre-civilisational and the civilisational to be redrawn, either masking or repla-
cing an older distinction between savage/barbarian and civilisation. Civilisation
now denoted societies that had evolved from simple, unitary societies to more
complex ones in the key areas of social structures, moral and ethical devel-
opment, and cognitive and aesthetic capacities. Civilisation came to denote a
series of complex social processes that included a growing division of labour
and power between social groups, as well as technological innovation and
specialisation. The latter included increasing abilities to transform nature either
through increased and more sophisticated agriculture (after its domestication
during the Neolithic period) or the construction of a built environment from
monumental architecture to canals and aqueducts.4
While some controversy emerged over the importance of technological
innovation as the hallmark of civilisation, the civilisational taxonomy also
coalesced around three other social processes. Two of these processes con-
tinued to emphasise the reorganisation of the material world – the growth and
development of cities (which V. Gordon Childe termed the urban revolution),
and state and empire formation and organised militarisation. Both of these
processes entailed growing power and control over extended social and natural
space through the inventions of institutions of rulership and administration.
In other words, and as one commentator has noted, ‘a civilisation possesses a
material and political organisation that permits it to exercise power over an
extensive area and to reach out effectively to regions beyond its control’
(Chodorow et al., 1989: 8; Armillas, 1968: 218–221). In a slightly different
formulation, it must be capable of giving ‘coherence either to a wide ranging
empire or to a system of states for at least several centuries’ (Kavolis, 1987: 3).
The other social process that civilisational analysis emphasised was in the
area of general cultural development, especially aesthetic representation, and
cognition and ethics, that is, in forms of reflexive and speculative thinking. In
concrete terms, the invention of writing and the shift from naturalistic and
mimetic art forms to symbolic abstraction and stylisation are viewed as central
to this taxonomical dimension. In particular writing is viewed as paramount
because of the way in which it could be used to manage space and time.
Writing could be ‘applied to the formulation of complex astronomical and
mathematical information; to the compilation of laws, cosmologic lore, or
dynastic lists (and eventually the substance of history); to the registration of
transactions, contracts and deeds; and even the recording of magical
Civilisation to indigenous modernities 147
incantations…’ (Armillas, 1968: 216). Laws and lists gained an increasing
force and legitimacy because they became socially objectified points of refer-
ence by those groups wielding social power. Moreover, the social division that
emerged between the literate and the illiterate, together with a specialised
hierarchy of scribes who also used writing as a resource for the accumulation
of social power, is also viewed as taxonomically significant (Rundell and
Mennell, 1998: 1–29).

Hail to thee, Australia’s shores/We bring a civilisation

An empirical blindness emerged along these two fronts internal to the con-
ventional understanding of civilisation towards those who already occupied
the fifth continent. Indigenous life was an existence unidentifiable in the
lexicon of this meaning of civilisation, which privileged juridical sovereignty and
literate culture. Constructed in this way, the encounter between the indigenous
people and the British occurred across a chasm, with a notion of civilisation
on one side, and its radical other – primitivism – on the other, which could be
deployed either negatively or as the basis for a critique of civilisation (Smith,
1989; Williams, 1990). Thus, there was no need to engage with or adapt to the
presence of the indigenous people. In these terms, no civilisational encounter
took place. As Reynolds, for one, puts it, ‘no treaties were ever negotiated like
the hundreds signed with indigenous people in North America, Africa and New
Zealand. There was no recognition of acceptance in Australia that remnant
sovereignty survived annexation permitting autonomy or local government’
(Reynolds, 1996a: xii). The juridical notion of sovereignty became the con-
stitutive dimension for a hermeneutics of civilisation in the context of Australian
Before turning to the Australian context, though, we can see the way in
which the juridical notion of sovereignty was deployed in another setting, the
New Zealand one. In 1837 the then Colonial Secretary Lord Glenelg wrote, in
reference to the Maori states, that ‘they were not savages living by the chase, but
Tribes who have apportioned the country between them, having fixed abodes
with an acknowledged property in the soil, and with some rude approaches to a
regular system of internal government’ (Glenelg in Pocock, 2000: 26; Williams,
1990). The key phrase, in relation to the Maori, is ‘not savages living by the
chase’. As Pocock points out, Glenelg was drawing on the background eighteenth-
century idea whereby the capacity to establish a ‘fixed property in the soil’ was
viewed as the start of two processes – the development of civil society and the
development of civil government. In other words, the Maori could be viewed in
civilisational terms as a proto-civilisation that had crossed a threshold to
create property in land, as well as a form of sovereignty by way of a chiefly
structure, which was competent to settle disputes (Pocock, 2000).
Pocock suggests that this proto-civilisational construction was ‘an important
step away from the supposition that “people’s living by the chase” lacked
political ability and toward the proposition’ that a capacity to make treaties
148 Political modernities
‘might arise in the order of natural development before the governmental’
(Pocock, 2000: 31). As he goes on to say, within this framework,

the capacity to engage in war, terminate it by treaties, precede it by alliances,

and behave wisely and unwisely, justly or unjustly, in the practice of these
activities was important in what was termed the progress of society and
the human moral story.
(Pocock, 2000: 31)

In other words, the British Crown in its encounters with other indigenous
peoples in Northern America (for at least 150 years before Glenelg’s remarks)
had already developed a complex picture of North American tribal leaders’
abilities to conduct war, negotiate peace and make politics through oratory.
This complex picture was also presented in the literature of the day. In his
well-known An Essay on the History of Civil Society written in 1767, Adam
Ferguson, who should be read sympathetically in the broader context, portrays
a knowledge of indigenous American tribes engaging in primitive democracy.
To be sure, the goal of Ferguson’s work was to provide a history of the formation
of civil society, which in his influential view, was ordered around the distinction
between civilisation and non-civilisation, a distinction he posited in terms of
polished and rude societies. For him, rude societies were those that are not yet
differentiated in terms of manners and styles of life, which he further divided
between those that were savage and those that were barbarian. Savage societies
were characterised, by him, as not yet internally specialised, in that property
relations and political forms were neither institutionalised nor mediated by
abstract rules. Nonetheless, they were, according to Ferguson, on ‘the eve of
erecting republics [in which] their love of equality, their habit of assembling in
public councils, and their zeal for the tribe to which they belong, are qualifi-
cations that fit them to act under that species of government’ (Ferguson, 1995
[1767]: 99).
Notwithstanding their democratic practices, though, Ferguson constructed
a watershed between rude and civilised societies that occurred as patterns of
increasing differentiation and specialisation in the areas of the economy, culture,
and state building. For our purposes here, the latter is most important.
For him, state building involved the formation of separate institutions, that is,
bureaucracies, for the administration of state power, as well as standing
armies for territorial conquest and the formation of empires. The formation
of institutions and codes that settle disputes – the development of law and the
judiciary, all of which coalesce in the idea of juridical sovereignty – were also
defining characteristics of state building, for Ferguson.
In the history of this debate, treaties were negotiated with Maori and other
Polynesian societies on the basis of the recognition of juridical sovereignty
and a proto-state form, no matter how one-sided these treaties were. No such
treaties were entered into with the indigenous people of Australia. Within the
context of the circle of civilisational understanding outlined above the
Civilisation to indigenous modernities 149
doctrine of terra nullius was invoked. The effect of this doctrine was to refuse
the idea of ‘a reason of state’ to Australian indigenous peoples, and thus a
sovereignty that could have become the basis for the recognition of, and
negotiation with, the particular civilisation of the fifth continent. From this
perspective, there was no juridical sovereignty and no political structure or
proto-state with which to negotiate, the outcome of which could have been a
form of treaty. This doctrinal view was expressed in 1836 by Justice Burton
when he stated, ‘although it might be granted that on first taking possession
of the colony, the Aborigines were entitled to be recognised as free and inde-
pendent, yet they were not to be considered as free and independent tribes.
They had no sovereignty’ (Barton in Reynolds, 1998: 209).
In other words, terra nullius, in this instance, referred not to the empirical
invisibilisation of an entire people, but to their politico-juridical invisibilisation,
of which profound consequences were to follow. While this orthodox view that
there was only one sovereign and only one system of laws in Australia was
contested in the colonial courts, nonetheless, ‘both the British and colonial
authorities endeavoured to maintain the myth of an empty land’ (Reynolds,
1998: 210). And on the basis of this founding myth of terra nullius, with its
internal dialectic between territorial‒juridical sovereignty and its absence, the
indigenous population could effectively be remade into something that they
were not – primitive and savage.

Theorising indigenous civilisation – The social ontology of the sacred

This chapter has been arguing that a notion of civilisation was constitutive for
the way in which the colonial settlement of Australia proceeded. The notion of
civilisation crystallised around three main features against which the indigenous
population could be invisibilised in territorial‒juridical terms. Civilisations
were sites of power centred on states and cities and they were territorially
expansive. They were also literate, and the invention of writing also entailed
an increased capacity for the symbolic abstraction of reality, and hence an
increase in the range of creative interpretations.
However, this chapter also argues that Australian indigenous life can be
reconstructed in civilisational terms other than those described above, drawing
not only from current archaeological and anthropological research, but also
from a richer culturalist notion of civilisation articulated in the works of
Durkheim and Mauss.
Current archaeological and anthropological research has established a
more dynamic picture than one derived from background assumptions of
stasis, especially in the areas of the nature of the social networks and power
structures of Australian indigenous life (Lourandos and Ross, 1994).5 A dynamic
picture has emerged in relation to its pre-state form of alliance networks that
involved ‘the mediating role of ceremonial and inter-group gatherings and
exchange systems that helped to regulate social relations between competing
populations and networks’, and bound together societies that otherwise
150 Political modernities
lacked centralised political controls (Lourandos, 1997: 319). Furthermore, these
extended alliance networks were grounded in gerontocratic forms of power.
These gerontocracies monopolised resources and social knowledge (Lourandos,
1997; Lourandos and Ross, 1994; Hiatt, 1966, 1986; Meggitt, 1966).
This archaeological and anthropological research can be further elaborated,
though, in terms laid out by Durkheim and Mauss, especially in their work
where they directly invoke the notion of civilisation. As has been argued
elsewhere, the concept of civilisation served a triple purpose in Durkheim’s later
work (Rundell and Mennell, 1998: 21). What is less important here is the way
Durkheim deploys the term civilisation in order to explore his proposition that
the human animal is both angel and beast, and that a civilising process is
played out as a long history of tensions between them. What is more important
and interesting here is the second purpose for which he mobilised a concept
of civilisation. This purpose was to further explore his insistence that this
civilising process is constituted through patterns of collective creations and
interpretations that are created and represented in symbolic form. For Durkheim,
humankind is the symbolising animal. It is through symbolisation in whatever
form it takes that civilising processes occur and social individuals are made. If
the human being is the symbolising animal, this capacity for symbolisation is
lifted out of everyday life and coheres as a social ontology. He names this social
ontology the sacred, which does not obey profane laws, but follows its own
logic of social creation. In this sense, civilisations are not only collective
representations, but also collective creations, that is, socially originating forms
of interpretation through which human beings, as he says, ‘have pictured to
themselves the world and themselves’ (Durkheim, 1976: 9).
Moreover, Durkheim’s notion of civilisation entails that they are not only
social creations or social ontologies, but are also creative for the social member-
ship. This is where the idea of creativity can enter at the level of social agency.
While it is an overstatement to claim that for Durkheim the social member-
ship creates these social ontologies, nonetheless civilisations are acted out,
remade and reaffirmed in the rites and rituals ‘in which individuals represent
to themselves the society of which they are members’ (Durkheim, 1976: 225).
In this sense, they are also the primary media through which creativity and
individual self-expression can be articulated. In Durkheim’s view, collective
representations tie individual and social creativity together; they are the forms
through which a singular individual transforms his or her own creative life into
one that is simultaneously individual and social. In other words, collective
representations are particularised by individuals in such a way that they
become meaningful for the individuals concerned. They are simultaneously
internalised and recreated in a way that maintains, rather than disrupts, the
individual’s relation to the sacred. ‘[E]ach individual has his own, made in his
own image, associated to his own intimate life, bound up with his destiny …
These beings are the objects of rites which the individual can celebrate by
himself outside of the group’ (Durkheim, 1976: 424). In this way, and even on
his or her own, the social individual is part of a collective force that he or she
Civilisation to indigenous modernities 151
can animate in terms of his or her creative capacities. As Durkheim further
points out in the section on rites in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life,
collective representations are media through which both social relations are
expressed and dramatised and individual creativity is expressed. Ceremonies
are effervescent, tumultuous events where not only collective representations
are expressed and remade, but also selves (Durkheim, 1976: 344–350).
Moreover, for Durkheim, if human beings are the symbolising animals then
civilisations only make sense as the social space where this symbolising activity
occurs. However, as Durkheim goes on to note, symbolisation or cultural
creation cannot be contained within discrete territorial units, be they ‘societies’
or ‘nations’. This aspect of the geography of civilisations became a third
purpose for which the notion was mobilised by Durkheim, and enabled him
to bring together the problem and theme of cultural creation together with
territoriality and, unexpectedly, power. In ‘A Note on the Notion of Civilisation’
(1913) written jointly around the time that The Elementary Forms of Religious
Life was published (1912), Durkheim and Mauss argue that it is misleading
to begin civilisational analysis with political conceptions. Rather, there are
societal dimensions such as language and culture that are supranational, and
these cannot be bound to politically determined spaces. For Durkheim and
Mauss, these types of extensive social forms do not exist merely ‘as isolated
instances, but also as complex and interdependent systems which without
being limited to a determinate political organism, are however localisable in
time and space’ (Durkheim and Mauss, 1998 [1913]: 152). Hence, civilisations
are not

the product of a state or a people alone. Rather they extend beyond these
frontiers, whether they extend out from a determinate area by a power of
expansion originating from within, or whether they result from relation-
ships established among societies and so are the common product of
these societies.
(Durkheim and Mauss, 1998 [1913]: 153; Arnason, 1988)

In this sense, they point to an indeterminate and unequal relation between

political and symbolic frontiers, and the way in which these frontiers expand
unequally and often in tension with one another beyond their local origins and
regions and become internationalised. In the Australian context, this ‘inter-
nationalisation’ could refer to the way in which these uneven frontiers spread
throughout the continent through ceremonial ritual, exchange and trade.
Mauss reiterates and extends the basic thesis of ‘A Note on the Notion of
Civilisation’ in his own ‘Civilisations: Elements and Forms’ written in 1927.
Mauss defines a civilisation as the ‘sum total of the specific aspects character-
ising the ideas, practices and products common that is more or less common
to a number of societies’ (Mauss in Arnason, 1988: 90). In this sense, a civilisa-
tion is a shared historical source of intellectual and material wealth, a type of
hyper-social system of social systems or ‘family of societies’. A single society
152 Political modernities
can even create and define itself against this hyper-social system. Furthermore,
in an implied argument against social evolutionists, infusionists, and the high
culturalist critics of civilisation who equate it with social corruption, Mauss
points to a series of diverse elements that can constitute a civilisation. These
can range from custom and ritual, mentalities, arts, techniques and money.
Mauss notes that there is inter-permeability between these varieties of features
that make civilisations arbitrary and uneven. Hence, they should be taken on
their own terms (Arnason, 1988).
In addition, civilisations are also perspectivistic. For Mauss, they mark the
boundaries – and not only in linguistic terms – between insiders and outsiders,
between those who belong to a particular civilisation and project which is as
singular, unique, or even universal, and those who do not. It is this capacity
for constituting a boundary at the end of the symbolic frontier, so to speak,
that also indicates for Mauss the power internal to civilisations. It is not
material in the strict sense, but ‘exists as a myth, as a collective representation’
(Mauss, 1998: 157). In other words, power refers to the capacity of a civilisation
to mark its collective representations in terms of relative openness or closure
to others. Put more strongly, in these terms power means symbolically formed
agonistic relations between self and other marked more by a condition of
closure than openness (Mauss, 1998: 157).
In summary, then, and as a way of bringing the intensification debate and
Durkheim’s and Mauss’s work together, the concept of civilisation, generally,
comes to refer to a constellation of mundane and sacred creativity, systemic
coherence and power. Moreover, civilisations endure across time. For Braudel,
for example, the rapid changefulness of the present belies the real nature of
civilisations – their long dureé. It is this characteristic, more than any other
that, for him, defines them and gives them depth which enables them to survive
the patterns and crises of the short term (Braudel, 1975: 7576–7577). Following
his more poetic formulation of civilisational time, their long dureé entails that
they are ‘many times more solid than what one might imagine. They have
withstood a thousand supposed deaths, their massive bulks immoved by the
monotonous pounding of the centuries’ (Braudel, 1975: 77).
Taken together, culturally instituted understandings of social creation, non-
state, as well as state-based forms of territoriality through which power is
mobilised in closed or open ways, and histories of the long-run can be seen
as markers not only of civilisations generally, but also of an Australian
indigenous one.
Nonetheless, in the context of this more general formulation of civilisation
derived from the works of Durkheim and Mauss, the specificity of Australian
indigenous civilisation cannot be fully captured by the distinction that Durkheim
makes between the sacred and the profane. This is also notwithstanding
Durkheim’s desire to impute an essential elementary structure to them, an
essentialist attitude that flowed through to Levi-Strauss and his work on kinship.
Rather, their culturally instituted understandings of social creation are given
shape through what Rumsey has termed ‘inscriptive practices’.
Civilisation to indigenous modernities 153
Inscriptive practices are a form of world orientation through which the past
actions of human beings who are known in cosmological form are inscribed
in and retrieved from the landscape by social actors in the present. Rumsey
explains that

what is most characteristic of this ‘mode of orientation’ is not necessarily

any particular emphasis on mythic versus historical consciousness [or
sacred or profane knowledge], but the realisation of both in a particular
form of inscription – in the places through which one moves in the course
of social life.
(Rumsey, 1994: 127)

In other words, Australian indigenous civilisation uses ‘features of the land-

scape as a medium for the production and reproduction of meaning’ (Rumsey,
1994: 116). They cut across both the sacred and the profane, present and past
in active and creative interpretive ways through which Australian indigenous
civilisation is constantly reinscribed, and with reference to place.
This culturally instituted social ontology with its own form of inscriptive
practice based in landscape became the more important blind spot of the
Australian occidental colonial-settler civilisation. Neither storytelling, nor song
and art through which the inscriptive practices were articulated were appro-
priated as forms of understanding within the horizon of this colonial-settler
civilisation, which viewed writing as one of the civilisational watersheds.6 In
the encounter between indigenous civilisation and the one that the British
brought with them, material resources were either systematically ploughed
under or turned into museum curiosities, and the inscriptive practices either
went unnoticed, were ignored or were inadequately captured under the term
of ‘nomadic’ (Griffiths, 1996; Rumsey, 1994).

Civilisational encounters: Multiple modernities, indigenous

modernities and inscriptive practices
The remaking of indigenous populations into first subjectless subjects of the
British Crown, citizenless subjects of the Australian nation, and much later
citizens also resulted in their ‘aboriginalization’, or their indigenous moder-
nisation.7 This remaking was a configuration of unplanned cruelties, frontier
violence, missionary activity, scientific racism and a paternalistic incorporation
into welfare and labour economies mediated as much by flour, sugar and tea –
as money. This remaking continued to occur up until 1967 when a federal
government sponsored referendum gave legal recognition to the indigenous
population. More precisely, this intersection or clash between indigenous civili-
sation and a New World in the making, and the inscription of the indigenous
population into Australian aborigines can be conceptualised in terms of two
indigenous modernities – the indigenous modernity of a racially constituted
bestiarium, and after 1967, the indigenous modernity of citizenships.
154 Political modernities
The modernity of the bestiarium was one of the modernities of the Australian
continent from 1788, and for its indigenous inhabitants the constitutive experi-
ence of their modernity among all of the modernities that were co-present. In
other words, multiple modernities (Eisenstadt, 2000) arose in the antipodes
that were configured by the variety of features through which modernity,
generally, was constituted, and the variegated ways that these competing
forces impacted upon the indigenous population. As mentioned above, these
features also included for Australia, as elsewhere in the New World, the terri-
torialisation and juridification of sovereignty under the conditions of both
imperial‒colonial expansion and nation building through various forms of
immigration – convicts, settlers, immigrants, the formation of a civil society
defined by property rights and later representative democracy, all of which
went under the name ‘civilisation’. The constitution of multiple modernities,
again for Australia as elsewhere, also included the ‘the continual constitution
and re-constitution of a multiplicity of cultural programs’ that were as old as
the variegated modern project itself, and included the technical imagination, as
well as claims for autonomy and freedom (Eisenstadt, 2000: 2; Heller, 1999).
The cultural programmes of modernity also included the imagination of
race, which functioned, especially in settler societies, generally, as the mark of
exclusion of slaves and indigenes not so much from the projects of modernity
as a whole, but from some of its dimensions, especially its political ones. In the
Australian context, though, the category of race also entailed exclusion from
territorial‒juridical sovereignty, as well as from politics. Moreover, from the
vantage point of racially conceived interpretations Australian indigenous
people as ‘Aborigines’ became representatives of the earliest stage of human
development in nineteenth century evolutionary theories. In this way biological
characteristics became the metaphors through which the human race was
evolutionarily mapped and reconstructed according to a sliding scale from the
lowest to the highest, or the most animalist to the most human (Darwin,
1998; Darwin 1996b; Cowlishaw, 1987; McCorquodale, 1986).
The potent mix of the national–juridical notion of sovereignty, which
grounded the image of terra nullius, and the category of race set the conditions
for, and resulted in, a particular Australian barbarism, which became the
other side of the civilising of the Australian continent. It is here that invisibili-
sation also turned into a ‘logic of elimination’ (Wolfe, 2001: 871). The con-
struction of a territorial image of an empty land in terms of juridified
territorial sovereignty entailed that its counter-image of the primitive could be
given coherence as absolute outsider. This barbarism can be captured under
the more general term of bestiarium, which refers to the value positions of
race and territory that the civilisers held, and the way these values functioned
as enclosing interpretations of those deemed to be outside civilisation (Fehér,
1987b: 260).8 In other words, the bestiarium refers to the self-images and
cultural resources that were created and mobilised, in this case, on the basis of
race that orientated and gave meaning to a form of social power that constructed
the indigenous population as the absolute outsider.
Civilisation to indigenous modernities 155
From such a value position a series of interpretations, practices and
institutions were either created or mobilised that resulted in, unplanned,
and, then, systematic exclusion, of the indigenous population from territorial-
juridical sovereignty. Four phases marked the history of the Australian
bestiarium and indicated a shift from the position of excluding or keeping the
indigenous population on the outside, to breeding them out by diluting their
blood through the practices of miscegenation (Wolfe, 2001: 871–873).9 The
first phase can be termed the bestiarium of frontier settlement and occurred
throughout all of the frontiers of the Australian New World, and included
violent seizures of land, naked war and exterminating practices (Reynolds,
1996a). The second phase is the bestiarium of conversion and included all
Christian denominations, in which the notions, activities and practices of
Christianisation were synonymous with those of civilisation, and it laid
much of the groundwork for ‘the aboriginal-in-the-making’ (Attwood,
The third phase, the development of ‘civilised’ welfare paternalism, or the
bestiarium of welfare, was a technique of submission and governmental and
missionary surveillance. It marked the beginning of an ethnocide proper and
distinguished this phase from previous ones. This ethnocide developed fully
when the bestiariums of the mission and welfare combined and coalesced with
scientific racism, the result of which was a fourth phase of forced mergence
and assimilation. Its main logic and rationale revolved around the policy of
the forced removal of aboriginal children from their parents, and was the
nadir of the histories of the Australian bestiarium (Bringing Them Home
Report, 1997; van Krieken, 1999; Wolfe, 2001).
In his own analysis of this history that critically draws on Elias’s formulations
of civilising and de-civilising processes, van Krieken argues that this particular
barbarism resulted in the de-civilisation of the indigenous population (van
Krieken, 1999: 299). Arguments about colonisation and civilisation often assume
a totality of subordination, or in this case decimation and annihilation. And
yet, rather than being a totalising process, in the Australian context clashes,
encounters and exchanges between modernities and the particular civilisational
contexts and backdrops became spaces for further creative interpretations.
Moreover, the various dimensions and cultural programmes of what have been
termed multiple modernities are themselves conflictual, configured creating
further spaces that throw interpretations into relief, destabilising them and
enabling the creation of new ones. In this way, the process of the Australian
indigenous bestiarium remained incomplete, geographically dispersed and
contested (Reynolds, 1996a, 1996b).
The long dureé of Australian indigenous civilisation and its inscriptive
practices continued its presence as a living form that continuously shaped
the nature of the indigenous modernity itself. Indigenous inscriptive prac-
tices provided the parameters of their interpretation of their modernity and
later responses to it in the context of the broader Australian one. As Beckett
points out,
156 Political modernities
it is important to grasp that Aboriginality arises not simply in reaction to
colonial domination, but out of a space in which Aboriginal people are
able to produce and reproduce a culture that is theirs … It is no less
Aboriginal if it concerns the lives and adventures of local identities, or
the wanderings of particular families. What is critical … is that it provides
them the means to interpret meanings emanating from the dominant
society, and to redistribute the effects of external forces.
(Beckett, 1994: 102; Austin-Broos, 1994)

The space of Aboriginality developed its own history of encounters between

coloniser and colonised drawing not only on their own civilisational resources
and inscriptive practices, but ones drawn from the modernities they became
subject to. It is not a matter of the civilisational versus the non-civilisational,
of pre-modernity versus modernity, of myth versus history, of the pre-political
versus the political, but rather of the civilisational ontologies that are
deployed and the way they are recreated and reinterpreted in whatever spaces
are available.

1 I would like to thank Said Amir Arjomand and Edward Tiryakian for their helpful
comments on an earlier draft of this contributing chapter. It is based on a paper
presented at the XVth ISA World Congress of Sociology, Brisbane 2002, entitled
‘The Australian Bestiarium: from indigenous civilisation to indigenous modernities’,
and initially grew out of a workshop organised by the journal Thesis Eleven on
Australian civilisation held in Melbourne, Australia, in 2001.
2 This juridical sovereignty was stated and restated at least five times: in 1788 with
the proclamation of settlement at Sydney Cove; in 1823/24 with the development of
a Charter of Justice which replaced the ad hoc legal system with regular procedures.
In 1824, Sir John Pedder became Chief Justice of Van Dieman’s Land. In 1829 the
western half of the continent was proclaimed as a colony for and by the British
Crown in a series of events culminating in The Western Australian Act 1829 (UK),
and Lieutenant-Governor Stirling’s Proclamation of the Colony on the 18th June.
In 1879 the Queensland colonial legislature passed The Queensland Coastal Islands
Act, which legally incorporated the Torres Strait into the Colony of Queensland. In
1889 in their judgement of the Cooper versus Stewart case, the British Privy
Council restated the principle of terra nullius.
3 This idea of juridical sovereignty is the target of a critique by Henry Reynolds, for
example, and a contestation, which was fought out at the level of constitutional law
through which the myth of terra nullius was overturned in the 1992 High Court
Mabo Judgement. See Reynolds, 1996a, 1996b, and the arguments put forward by
the full bench of the High Court of Australia in its judgement in Mabo and Others
v. Queensland (no. 2) (1992), 175 CLR 1 F.C. 92/014. See especially the judgement
by Brennan J.
4 In the nineteenth century the works of Morgan, 1985, Engels, 1978, Spencer, 1898
and Spencer, 1972 laid much of the groundwork for this taxonomical approach. In
the twentieth century the works by V. Gordon Childe, 1952, and Robert Redfield,
1956, continued to do so.
5 In terms of material life current archaeological research, especially in and around
the intensification debate, has established that for Australian indigenous people a
Civilisation to indigenous modernities 157
major change occurred in the use of stone tool technology with the appearance of
what has become known as the Australian Small Tool Tradition. These stone tool
technologies were previously thought to be unchanged and unsophisticated (Lourandos,
1987; Flood, 1999; Williamson, 1998). Further changes were established in food pro-
curing and processing techniques such as fish traps. Nonetheless, and notwithstanding
the importance of the recognition of growing technical sophistication, an emphasis on
changes in tool technology and food productive techniques may well be misplaced and
belong to a background idealisation of our own technically centred industrial civilisa-
tion. Technical mastery and control entered the realm of the mundane on the basis of
inscriptive practices such as initiation and firing.
6 To be sure there were instances of hermeneutical sensibility and cultural, and often
personal openness, notwithstanding empirical and scientist objectivism. For example,
see the letters of Gillen to Spencer in Mulvaney et al., 2001.
7 I am deploying the term ‘aboriginalisation’ in the wake of Bain Attwood’s work on
‘the making of the Aborigines’. See his The Making of the Aborigines (Attwood
1989, Allen and Unwin, Sydney).
8 To be sure, Fehér deploys this term to refer to the totalitarian logics of Nazism and
Stalinism, and the surveillance-disciplining social technologies of welfare capitalism.
Nonetheless, given these remarks it can be extended to encompass the historical
dynamic of European colonisation, including the Australian one.
9 Wolfe identifies three phases – confrontation, carceration, and assimilation, while
van Krieken concentrates on the period of the forced removal of indigenous children
from their parents.
10 Intersections and tensions between
civilisations and modernities:
The case of Oman

Oman, civilisational history and modernities in tension:

Some theoretical reflections
This chapter is a reflection on the modernity of Oman.1 I want to look at
Oman from the perspective of its ‘modernity’ as this provides a broader frame-
work in which to contextualise its more recent history, especially in the wake
of the so-called Arab Spring and its turbulent aftermath. While much attention
has been paid to Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, Bahrain, Libya and Yemen, Oman is
an overlooked and under-explored case.2 In much of the published research
literature on it, Oman is conventionally viewed as a society that has recently
been modernised after emerging from a period of isolation during the early
part of the twentieth century. The standard argument in outline is that it has
modernised quickly during the last forty years under the rule of the current
Sultan Qaboos bin Sa’id, who has been an active moderniser. This moder-
nisation has included extensive infrastructural development including roads,
health and education, the development of oil and natural gas resources, and
tourism. It has also included the consolidation of the Omani state and its
boundaries after the Dhofar settlement, its position as an ‘honest broker’ in
the diplomacy of the Arab world and international contexts, and more recent
experiments in formal democratisation, which has shifted its basis for
authority from ‘traditional’ to ‘post-traditional’. All of this has occurred in
the context of Oman as a complex multi-religious society, even in terms of its
relation with Islamic traditions, with its own internal regional differences. The
assumption in this literature is that Oman is a ‘young’ society in modern
The chapter explores this assumption from two different perspectives. One
perspective involves the versions of modernity that Oman is pursuing, and the
tensions and strains that may occur between these versions, while the other
perspective is a longer historical, civilisational one. It is the intersection of
Oman’s two ‘histories’ – the short-term and the long-term – that is the focus
of this chapter. From a more hermeneutically sensitive vantage point the issue here
is one of competing images and programmes of modernity that are constituted by
but also creatively working against a longer-term context.4
Intersections and tensions: The case of Oman 159
Let us begin with the first perspective. The idea of Oman as a ‘modern’
society is not straightforward if modernity is understood as a category that is
defined by various tensions. The emphasis on the short-term history, which
contrasts ‘modernisation’ with tradition, is as misleading as a single idea of
what modernisation refers to. This is especially the case when modernisation
is viewed as a synonym for development and global interconnectedness, which
themselves are contrasted with underdevelopment and isolation. In contrast
to modernisation theses it can be argued that there are tensions, dissonances
and contours, rather than ‘developmental’ patterns, through which particular
modernities are reconstructed. In work elsewhere, I have argued that we can
view these conflicts as instances of ‘modernities in tension’. The formulation
‘modernities in tension’ places an emphasis not so much on the distinctiveness
of its particular regions, but more on the constituent social imaginaries through
which a modernity can be identified. The literature of ‘multiple modernities’
tends to emphasise the different experiences of modernity in regional terms,
for example, Japanese modernity, Indian modernity, Chinese modernity, Iranian
modernity. Against a backdrop of overinflated claims concerning a globalised
‘modernity’ or a ‘European’ or ‘American’ one-world civilisation projected as
a globalised entity, this body of literature argues that there is the creation of
specific and competing regional modernities.5
In contrast to the modernisation and multiple modernities literatures, the
formulation ‘modernities in tension’ places the emphasis on the development
and crystallisation of distinct social imaginaries, each with its own long history,
self-understanding, and imaginative and emotional, not only rational,
dimensions. But because these constituent dimensions are also indeterminate
creations they stand in a disaggregated, rather than only differentiated, relation
to one another in a way that does not ‘add up’ or click together as a system.
The emphasis on indetermination and distinctive modern social imaginaries
in formal and substantive terms highlights a threefold combination of: the
specificity of modern social imaginaries; the long histories of regions and
cultures; and conflicts at junctures of these forces. These combinations are
historically indeterminate and generate a social form that is tension-ridden, and
open, yet always subject to closures.6 The modern social imaginaries include
the general and global monetarisation of social life constituted by the market;
industrialisation that emphasises the functions of labour, signs and codes;
expressivist aesthetics of the search for transcendence, paradox, surprise, and
includes aesthetic modernism and Romanticism; nation-state formation where
control of the instruments of control is its defining characteristic and includes
state centralisation, nationalism, and the totalitarian and fundamentalist
experiments; and the formation of public spheres and modern democratisation,
rather than simply ‘civil society’.
In this context it has often been assumed that the cause of current conflicts
in the Middle East and the Arab world are located at a dividing line between
religious groups, sects, believers and secularists. However, instead, religion
and secularity can be viewed as ‘stand-in’ categories through which conflicts
160 Political modernities
of modernity are interpreted and reorganised. This is especially the case when the
stake of the conflict occurs at the heart of one of modernity’s own imaginaries –
the social imaginary of state formation: who controls the state, and what
relation the state has to a ‘civil polity’ (even a predominantly religious one),
and the polity to it.7 In the case of Oman the tension or fault line is not one
between competing religious groupings and cultural formations, but between a
long, civilisational history of state consolidation and centralisation in the double
context of decentred ‘tribal’ or regional polities, and competing modern social
The second perspective, then, concerns Oman’s long and rich history.
Oman’s long civilisational history, which includes the pre-Roman and Roman
periods, Islamic Ibadism, and constant trade is suggestive of the formation of
a culture of openness to the outside world in the context of other cultures and
civilisations, including differing versions of Islam, and other religious traditions
and practices. In addition, Oman has a long history of relatively uninterrupted
territorial integrity, notwithstanding internal divisions and conflicts, and
competition with the Ottoman Empire and the Persians. Importantly, the
occupation of Oman by the Portuguese in the early part of the sixteenth
century until their defeat and expulsion in the seventeenth century was not
repeated, with only one relatively minor exception: a short period of occupation
by the Persians at the beginning of the eighteenth century.
Oman developed as a trading empire with extensive trade routes down the
east coast of Africa with its double power centres in Muscat and Zanzibar, and
across the Indian Ocean. The latter includes historical contact with the Indian
subcontinent over a long period of time, which culminated in administrative
control of Makran, or Gwadar, on the coast of current-day Pakistan, near the
Iranian border. This ‘three terminal corridor’, as Beatrice Nicolini formulates
it, gave Oman effective competitive control of the Western Indian Ocean
during the nineteenth century. During this period, Oman did not experience
colonisation by other European powers, notwithstanding colonising competition
especially between the French and the British (Nicolini, 2004).9
I want to suggest that Oman’s civilisational history is one of an open,
commercial, trading, sea-based one, dominated by ocean currents, sea winds
and maritime trade routes. I will term this civilisational history a thalassic one,
with a thalassocratic elite or power structure forged through the domination
and control of these routes.10 Oman’s thalassocratic civilisational history
provides a key to understanding both its long and short history, including its
period of isolation in which Oman was turned into an enclosed state, the
opposite of a thalassocracy. John Townsend gives an apt description of this
period, under the rule of Sultan Sa’id bin Taymur from 1932 to 1970, in his
book Oman:

Sultan Sa’id’s tyranny was not that of the history books, a harsh rule
imposed by naked force, but a tyranny of indifference to want and suffering
backed up by a very genuine threat of punishment if his people
Intersections and tensions: The case of Oman 161
complained … No man could leave his village and seek work without the
permission of the Sultan. No man could repair his house without the
permission of the Sultan.
(Townsend, 1977:13)

However, I want to suggest that this is the exception rather than the rule.
Oman, as a trading empire centred in the cities of Muscat, Zanzibar and
Makran, had a predisposition to openness. And more recently it has been
conducting its own experiments within the context of ‘tensions of modernity’,
Ibadism and an enlightened monarchy.11 To capture this more nuanced pic-
ture that combines both longer and shorter historical perspectives, I want to
provisionally suggest four periods of intersection between civilisation and

1 A period of initial nation building and state consolidation in the sense

that Norbert Elias portrays it, under the rule of the Al Ya’ribah dynasty
(1650–1737), which culminated in the defeat and expulsion of the Portuguese
from Omani territory.12
2 A period of imperial expansion in which Oman expressed its true thalassic
colours under the Al Bu Sa’id’s Dynasty. This began in 1744 and continues
today under the current Sultan Qaboos bin Sa’id, but for our purposes is
located around the period of 1792–1856, especially under the reign of
Sayyid Sa’id bin Sultan (1807–1856). This period also saw the separation
and distinction of the self-appointed hereditary sultanate from the elected
imamate grounded in Ibadism.
3 A period of hiatus and instability with relatively short-term reigns (1856–
1932). After the death of Sultan Sayyid Sa’id bin Sultan there was an
internal dispute between the sultan’s heirs which resulted in the split up of
the Omani Empire between Zanzibar and Muscat and the creation of the
Sultanate of Zanzibar in 1861, which became a British Protectorate in 1890,
and the Sultanate of Muscat and Oman (later to become the Sultanate of
Oman). Oman retained territorial integrity even in the wake of World War 1
and its aftermath, and one response to external forces was the long reign
of self-enclosure under the rule of Sultan Sa’id bin Taymur from 1932
until 1970.
4 The period of 1970 onwards under the rule of the current sultan – Sultan
Qaboos bin Sa’id, which is viewed self-descriptively as the Omani
Renaissance. Here, Oman’s more usual thalassic and thalassocratic social
imaginary has reasserted itself, but in a different way. It now wishes to
trade not only in hydrocarbons (oil and natural gas) and tourism, but
also in the knowledge economy.

Taken from this double perspective of longer and shorter histories, it can be
argued that, at least from the late eighteenth century, Oman has always been
‘modern’. I want to emphasise topographies and contours rather than
162 Political modernities
revolutions, especially in terms of the creation and selection of cultural models
or social imaginaries, and the intersections of these models with civilisational
histories. The notion of civilisational histories can be deployed in a non-
pejorative way, in talking about the combination of culture and power in
social spaces that are neither necessarily confined to, nor synonymous with,
state formation, although in this case they are. More concretely, Oman has
been part of a network of a world trading system, and it has also been active
as a trading empire in developing these networks (Wallerstein, 1979, 1989).13
I will concentrate on the second and fourth periods – Oman’s dominance of
the Western Indian Ocean, and the post-1970 period – in order to develop
this argument further.

Oman’s thalassic imaginary and absolutist thalassocracy – Expansion

and openness to outside worlds
J. E. Peterson, one of the major English-language writers on Oman, has
argued that Oman can be characterised as a society that has moved from
traditional, neo-traditional and post-traditional forms of power, and this
movement characterises shifts occurring between the four periods outlined
above. For Peterson, the traditional encompasses the period from the seven-
teenth century to 1932, the neo-traditional from 1932, and the post-traditional
period from 1970 onwards. However, I would like to suggest that the period
of the later eighteenth and nineteenth centuries could be characterised as a
complex thalassic Absolutism and the post-1970 period, at least in terms of
its political modernity, as an enlightened neo-Absolutism with democratic
intent. Here, the tensions of modernity, as I have outlined above, become
more evident.

The period of thalassic Absolutism

In the colourful terms portrayed by Nicolini in Makran, Oman and Zanzibar
Three Terminal Cultural Corridor in the Western Indian Ocean (1799–1856),

a real revolution occurred from which new protagonists emerged along

the Asian [the northwestern coast of the Indian subcontinent], Arabian,
and African coasts … From the nineteenth century it was the blood red
flag of the Omani that formed a tie, in not merely the figurative sense,
between the Omani enclave of the port of Gwadar in Makran-Baluchistan,
the principal ports of Oman itself, and the east Africa coast and the
island of Zanzibar through the movement of peoples, merchandise and
(Nicolini, 2004: xviii)

In other words, an Omani Empire controlled and monopolised the nautical

trade routes through shipping and taxation around the Western Indian Ocean
Intersections and tensions: The case of Oman 163
and it had three axes: Muscat, the capital of Oman on the tip of the Persian
Gulf; Makran on the coastal part of now western Pakistan near the Iranian
border, which remained an Omani enclave until 1958 when it was sold back
to Pakistan; and the island of Zanzibar, off the coast of Tanzania, past Kenya
and near Mozambique. Muscat and Zanzibar were the real centres of power,
and oceanic trade routes stretched from the Persian Gulf down the east coast
of Africa across the Indian Ocean to the Indian subcontinent, and then to South
East Asia, Vietnam and China. Zanzibar and Muscat parted company in an
arranged divorce as part of a settlement between the Sultan’s heirs, a divorce
that greatly weakened the Omani projection of imperial‒thalassic power.
To be sure, there had been regular sea trade routes for many hundreds of
years across the western India Ocean between Oman and the Indian sub-
continent. However, in the nineteenth century Zanzibar was especially the hub
for this movement. There were exports in cloves, slaves, copal resin used for
varnish, ivory, horses and red peppers, to name a few, and imports of flour,
cotton, refined sugar, guns and weapons, glass and alcohol.14 The Omani
Empire’s main protagonists, after the defeat of the Portuguese in the seventeenth
century, were the British, who viewed control of the Indian Ocean concomitant
with their control of the Indian subcontinent, and the French, who vied for
supremacy of ‘Arabia’ after Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt, and the associated
alliances made with the Ottoman and Persian Empires.
Within this complex social field – or thalassic, nautically constituted
expanse – Oman was able to develop its own imperial modernity which suc-
cessfully contested and juggled the modernities of the French and the British
and their own longer imperialising histories. According to Nicolini, Oman’s
own imperial modernity was forged out of a combination of three unique
elements. The first element was an Indian one, those who had been criss-crossing
the Indian Ocean – as the Omanis had done – for many hundreds of years,
making their homes in Oman and along the east coast of Africa. As Nicolini

[T]he mercantile elite of the Indian merchant communities, both Hindu

and Muslim, who financed the prosperous trade centres of Zanzibar in a
symbiotic relationship with Sa’id bin Sultan Al Bu Saidi, and at the same
time, in a close relationship with the populations of the East African
hinterlands [especially those of the Swahili language group and civilisation]
allowed this Arab dynasty the control (de facto a real monopoly) of the
main commercial ports and outlets of Arabia and of India.
(Nicolini, 2004: xxi‒xxii)

The second element was forged out of military force – not from the Omani
tribes, but from the warrior population of Baluchistan. Baluchistan was not
only the source of a long-standing mercantile relationship, which included the
slave trade, but was also the source of an important military relationship
through which bodyguards and an army could be recruited and maintained.
164 Political modernities
This recruitment provided a shield of protection around the sultan, especially
in periods of intra-Omani conflict. The third element was, to be sure, the
Omani aristocratic mercantile or thalassocratic tradition. Here, membership
lay within the family of the Sultanate, or was linked to kinsmen. Again, as
Nicolini notes,

too often individualism and particularism prevailed, ambitions and inter-

ethnic and inter-clan rivalries … represented a serious element of
instability … Said bin Sultan Al Bu Saidi was perfectly aware of this
instability when he started the conquest of ‘his’ Sultanate, as he was
aware of the unreliability of the Arab mercenaries.
(Nicolini, 2004: xxiii)

It is out of this constellation that ‘Sayyid Said made Zanzibar the centre of all
East African trade as part of “[a] three fold strategy to maximise control of
commercial maritime activity, to develop agriculture and to exploit the export
potential of East Africa”’ (McBrierty and Al Zubair, 2004: 29–30). Zanzibar
became the joint capital along with Muscat.
This thalassocracy was thus constituted by an openness, and in a two-fold
way. There was the openness in terms of trade and commerce. But there was
also an openness to the ‘new’ world around the Sultanate. This, in terms of
the European presence, translated into an openness to diplomacy, as well as
trade, rather than war. Diplomacy, here, was neither simply negotiation nor
‘self-interest’; it was an artful dance, even when missteps and misunderstanding
(of which there were many on all sides) occurred. Diplomacy, like trade,
emphasised peaceful conduct. It was not, however, conduct without power
and a sanction of force; it was a conduct where power resided in strategic
rationality, in forging alliances and playing one side off against another. As
Vincent McBrierty and Mohammed Al Zubair note in their Oman Ancient
Civilisation: Modern Nation towards a Knowledge and Service Economy,

Sayyid Said further consolidated his Omani empire by establishing interna-

tional relations and trade links with America, Britain, France and Portugal.
Agreements on the suppression of the slave traffic were signed with the
British in 1822, 1839 and 1845. A treaty was signed with America in 1833.
(McBrierty and Al Zubair, 2004: 30)

As Nicolini also suggests,

his [the Sultan’s] modernity was based on ‘mobility’, a mobility between

three continents: Asia, Africa and that Europe of the Mediterranean basin;
and this mobility enabled Al Bu Saidi to play politically on the two poles
of Muscat and Zanzibar, and militarily on the generous supporting troops
of Makran, escaping when necessary from the pursuits of the British
Navy, then reconciling with this Great Power in an extended willingness,
Intersections and tensions: The case of Oman 165
a willingness which was based on both ambiguity and elusiveness, typical
of their authority and their strength.
(Nicolini, 2004: xxiv)

It is for the above reasons that I use the term thalassic Absolutism rather than
the more usual term ‘traditional’, as argued by Peterson, to indicate the
nature of the Sultanate’s power during this period. As Peterson notes, during
the early days of the Al Bu Said dynasty the rulers gave up their power to rule
as Imams, which were elected positions within Ibadi Islam. This resulted in an
internal division and competition within Omani society between the Imamate
and the Absolutist state, each with a basis and claim for legitimacy. From a
Weberian perspective, the legitimacy of the Omani state was grounded in its
adherence to the just rules according to the tenets of Islam, their emergence
from one of the recognised tribes of Oman, and their competence in providing
order to the country and negotiating with a world outside (Peterson, 2005: 3).
In this context, and if nation-state consolidation, taxation and the development
of diplomacy are characterised as inherently modern, then it is appropriate to
view Oman as an Absolutist nation state and empire whose modernity is
constituted both through its mobility, or thalassic imaginary, and an Absolu-
tist centralisation of royal power. In other words, nation-state formation and
the control of extensive sea-based trade routes come together, as with the
English and the Dutch (even though the latter was politically a republic), to
develop a different and competing ‘civilising process’ than land-based and
landlocked ones, such as the German, the Russian and even the French.15 This
formulation assists us in our analysis of the most recent period of Oman’s
history – its post-1970 period under the reign of Sultan Qaboos bin Saidi.

Thalassic neo- or enlightened Absolutism – Reconstructing

contemporary Omani modernity
If modernity can be characterised as a field of tensions in which some but not
necessarily all the dynamics of monetarisation, industrialisation, nation-state
formation, democratisation and public spheres, and aesthetic expressivism
coalesce, combine and collide, then the post-1970 period in Oman witnesses a
new round of the thalassic social imaginary within a once again opened
Absolutism. I wish to term this period one of state directed, neo-Absolutist
reconstruction in the areas of the technical‒industrial and monetarised social
This reconstruction, however, occurs in the light of the current Sultan’s
acknowledgement of political modernity, which as implied in the introductory
comments above, is formed out of the tension between the nation state and
public‒democratic imaginaries. As I have also discussed in previous work, the
nation state and public‒democratic imaginaries provide the basis for the forma-
tion and competition between different citizenship forms – the imaginary of
the nation state creates and prioritises national‒juridical citizenship, while the
166 Political modernities
formation of public spheres and modern democratisation creates political‒
public citizenship and cosmopolitan citizenship.16 Each forms an arena of
contestation and conflict with the other types, as well as with the explicit
power of nation states. It is often assumed that economic‒social or welfare
citizenship is an outcome of conflicts and struggles between national‒juridical
and political‒public citizenships. It suffices to mention that rights and welfare
based citizenship often sits at the intersection of nation-state formation and
democratic rulership of liberal and/or welfare states with their own languages
of negative freedoms and/or economic and social rights. However, this may
not be the case. Rights in the form of welfare may be created and dispensed
under the watchful eye of the national‒juridical state. Hence there can be a
coexistence of national‒juridical citizenship and welfare citizenship, with an
absence of political citizenship, which has often been the case in single party,
totalitarian, executive-based states, or the so-called new enlightened sultanates.
Because of this combination the sultanate states have been termed in
economistic terms ‘rentier states’, and contemporary Oman appears to be no
exception to this formulation. The term rentier state harks back to Max Weber’s
formulation of cities, especially ‘princely’ ones that are not states, and which
generate their sources of income and revenue from the purchasing power of
the princely courts and large households. According to Weber,

the purchasing power of the large … consumers – and that means: of

rentiers – determines the economic opportunities of the resident artisans
and traders. These large traders can be … officials spending their legal or
illegal revenues, or manorial lords and political power holders consuming
their non-urban ground rents or other more politically determined incomes
in the city.
(Weber, 1978a: 1215)

In contemporary literature this idea of the rentier city is transferred as an

explanatory model for the formation of more recent, post-World War II, non-
occidental nation states, especially in the Middle East and the Arab world,
the source of income for which is derived primarily from natural resources,
especially oil and natural gas. These sources of revenue are then distributed to
the nation’s citizens in the form of subsidies and non-taxed income. In other
words, these rentier nation states increase their reliance on oil revenue and
decrease or nullify their reliance on domestic taxation (Schwarz, 2008: 605).
As Beblawi notes, the rents are ‘the income derived from “the gift of nature”
and have usually been understood to be income accrued from the export of
natural resources, especially oil and gas’ (Beblawai, 1990: 85; Luciani, 1990:
65–84). The argument is that political support is bought off and provides the
basis for both political legitimacy and stability. As Schwarz argues and Valeri
also attests, resting on the economic function of the modern state in providing
welfare and wealth to its citizens, this state model remains stable as long as
both sides adhere to an implicit social contract between state and society,
Intersections and tensions: The case of Oman 167
through which political rights are substituted for welfare rights(Schwarz,
2008: 607; Valeri, 2013b: 71–117).
The outcome is also a bargain for political acquiescence initiated from the
side of in this instance, the oligarchically structured Omani rentier state.
There are at least two limitations to this rentier model that I will discuss
here, which build a more complex picture – the continuing thalassic current
that runs deep within Omani culture, and the formation of Oman’s political
modernity, especially if it is seen as the tension between nation-state development
and citizenship forms.
The thalassic social imaginary was reinvigorated in the wake of a bloodless
palace coup in July 1970 when Sultan Qaboos bin Said replaced his father
Sultan Said bin Taymur. Sultan Qaboos bin Said envisioned an Oman that
was no longer tied up with the control and trade of spices, weaponry, timbers
and resin, let alone slaves, but one that trades in three major industrial and
post-industrial commodities: first, oil and natural gas; second, people as in-
bound tourists, and, related to this, the development of a service based sector.
The third post-industrial, but no less thalassic commodity, is the higher
education and research sector that specialises in the circulation of scientific
and technological knowledge, in part, but only in part, through information
technologies. In Oman, information technology is subordinated to the for-
mation of a new thalassic imaginary: Oman, or really Muscat, as a hub for
specialised research in petro-carbons and water.
According to Peterson, prior to the bloodless palace coup, the defence
sector was the only capably organised and run governmental department, and
was nearly the only major employer in the country (Peterson, 2004a: 127).
His ‘Oman: Three and Half Decades of Change and Development’ gives a
comprehensive overview of the changes that occurred, especially in terms of
security, and the diplomatic challenges that were surmounted in the earlier
years in the 1970s. I will however concentrate on the three areas indicated
above, before concluding with a brief discussion of Oman’s political, as distinct
from technical, industrial, or enlightened Absolutist, nation-state modernities.
As a side remark, there is also a contemporary expressive‒aesthetic modernity
that is present in Oman, not so much in art or film, but in music through the
revival of Arabic musical forms – both traditional and post-traditional – and
the inclusion of other non-western as well as western contemporary music,
including jazz, as indicated by the annual Sohar Music festival that is held in
November each year under the auspices of Sultan Qaboos.
Partly in the wake of indifference on the part of his father, and a stalling
opposition from other oil producing Arab states (Oman is not a member of
OPEC), the Omani oil industry only became a predominant feature of the Omani
national landscape and seascape from the 1970s onwards. Notwithstanding
current changing attitudes to the carbon economy and real limits to supply,
oil became not only a source of revenue, but also a source for research and
entrepreneurial talent. Compared to the other Gulf States, Oman’s oil reserves
are relatively limited and have a short supply life. Total barrel production on
168 Political modernities
2004 figures is 800,000 barrels per day and declining due to the technical
difficulties of extracting additional oil from its fields. ‘Petroleum Development
Oman (PDO), which is half owned by Shell, is Oman’s principal exploration
and production company producing 90% of the nation’s total output’
(McBrierty and Al Zubair, 2004: 112; Peterson, 2004a: 135; Valeri, 2013b:
71–73). There have been attempts at diversification and speculative exploration
through the Oman Oil Company under expatriate management to explore a
number of different construction projects: a Caspian Sea pipeline, an India‒
Oman gas pipeline, refineries in India, and a fertiliser plant to supply the
Indian market. However, these projects have not come to fruition and some
have been scaled back.
In the face of such limitations and ventures Oman has turned to natural
gas with some success, although liquefied natural gas (LNG) has proved to be
more achievable, and Oman is now the second highest exporter of LNG in the
Gulf Cooperative Council (GCC) states. However, with a growing population,
domestic demand has increased and there is also competition from Qatar
(Peterson, 2009: 15).
A not unrelated strategy, as oil and natural gas require shipping channels
and harbours, has been the development of a container port in Salalah in
the southern part of the country in competition with Dubai for the ‘new’
trans-west Indian Ocean container traffic. There has also been a new deep
water port in Suhar in the north, which takes the overload from Muscat,
and services an industrial expansion that includes petrochemical produc-
tion, aluminium smelting and product refinement from the oil industry
(Peterson, 2009: 15).
Given Oman’s limited supplies of oil and natural gas, tourism, the new
post-industrial source of ‘traffic’ in the Gulf region and the Indian Ocean,
now plays a major role in the Omani thalassic imaginary. High quality inter-
national hotels and resorts have mushroomed in and around Muscat, parti-
cularly in the wake of liberalised tourist visas. While not in the same league as
the statelets of the United Arab Emirates, Oman has also developed some
‘super projects’ that include hotels, golf courses and nature reserves to cater
for European and Asian tourism that is high-end, yet eco-friendly (Peterson,
2009: 16; McBrierty and Al Zubair, 2004: 137–155).
The most ambitious, long-term thalassic project is the imagining and con-
struction of Oman as a research and information technology hub for the Gulf
region. In part fuelled by a now literate, numerate and highly educated
younger population under the sway of ‘Omanization’ (a policy of replacing
expatriate professionals with highly educated Omanis who speak English as
the official second language), there has been an expansion not only of the
university sector, but also of the establishment of information technology
ones. Using Ireland and Singapore as models, according to McBrierty and al
Zubair, it is the government’s intention to make Oman one of the leading
e-business centres of the Gulf region that will attract major multinational
information technology companies (McBrierty and Al Zubair, 2004: 132).
Intersections and tensions: The case of Oman 169
There are two developments here that are of note, and indicate a continuing
thalassic relation with India and the Indian diaspora throughout South Asia
and Southeast Asia who are also used as a source of manual, construction and
service labour in the industrial and service sectors. The first is the development
of a software park incorporating a call centre, and the second is the development
of an information technology campus/park that has two information technology
colleges and a College of Applied Science in partnership with the Birla Institute
of Technology, India, which has relocated its campus to the park. Although
Peterson views developments such as these as more dream than reality, they
nonetheless represent an attempt by the Omani state to situate itself in a post-
industrial world drawing on the long thalassic tradition, which now takes the
form of technologically grounded and mediated knowledge transfers, to use a
well-worn phrase.

An Omani democratic social imaginary?

The thalassic social imaginary creates a sensibility towards openness, and this
is one of the preconditions for the creation of a democratic imaginary, at least
in terms of opening up the circulation of all forms of power, and accepting
that there are limitations to them, especially in the context of citizenship
forms. The creation of the democratic social imaginary of modernity with its
formation of political‒public citizenship not only includes the American and
French Revolutions, but also the Renaissance city states, the Swiss and the
Dutch republics and the 1989 ‘anti-totalitarian revolutions’ (Morin, 1992: 88–103;
Arendt, 1979; Collins, 1999). As we have seen recently in the Middle East and
the Arab world, however, democratic social imaginaries are still in the making
and their success has been anything but assured. Many models make up the
landscape of democratic political modernity such as direct, representative,
corporatist, romantic and Jacobin democracies. While open to ‘trade’ or to cross-
currents and cross-fertilisation from these models, the calls for the democratic
organisation of a society are nonetheless autochthonous and spring from the
soil of the people who imagine, demand, create and institute it. Democratic
political modernity is thus highly specific and fragile, and so may lose out to
the other imaginaries and dynamics of modernity, especially to those of
monetarisation and authoritarian and redemptively directed state formation.
In the case of Oman, it is clear that there are at least two, possibly counter-
posing, democratic developments occurring in the context of Sultan Qaboos’s
enlightened neo-Absolutism: a movement towards a constitutional monarchy
modelled on the British Westminster system, and an ‘indigenous’ current
inherited from the Ibadi tradition that amounts to a form of corporatist
representation (Ghubash, 2006). Both developments contest the operation of the
particular Omani rentier model with its particular version of economic-welfare
citizenship outlined above. As indicated, citizenship emerged along a grid line laid
down by the prerogatives determined by the Omani state in terms of those
who do and do not belong, and thus those who are recipients of its welfare
170 Political modernities
resources through, for example an expanding free education system and
highly subsidised healthcare. A population apparently has been made
acquiescent through its ‘welfare civilianisation’ (Schwarz, 2008: 599–621;
Valeri, 2013b).
However, if modernity is constituted as a field of tensions, then its con-
stitutive dimensions are also tension filled – and this goes especially for political
modernity and for the citizenship forms that are created in its name. Thus, in
the Omani case not only have national‒juridical and economic‒social or
welfare citizenships been created, but also a political‒public one that is being
created as much from above as below. Sultan Qaboos is attempting to blend
the two to produce a democratic constitutional monarchy that combines royal
power and representative democracy with participation drawn from local
communities. Unlike Westminster systems, for example, in the United Kingdom,
Canada and Australia, the monarchy in Oman still stands at the centre of
power and legitimacy. However, as we shall see, this version, too, is not without
tension as demands and claims for representation and participation are
articulated beyond the limitations within and outside the institutions that
have already been created.
In the context of the formation of a constitutional monarchy, there have
been very gradual attempts to create and confront the conditions of a political
modernity, perhaps finding expression in the Sultan’s 1996 Royal Decree setting
out the first written expression of constitutional law in the country’s history,
which is termed ‘The Basic Law of the State’. The Basic Law or constitution
enshrines the hereditary leadership of the sultan, provides for the appointment
of a prime minister, endorses the principle of consultation, declares all citizens
equal before the law, guarantees personal freedom of religion and expression
and declares the independence of the judiciary (Peterson, 2004a: 133–134,
2004b: 32–51). In other words, the decree and the constitutionally articulated
Basic Law indicate that the royal mechanism is constitutive and still implicated
in the formation of Oman’s political modernity. A state consultative council
was established in 1981 again by the sultan, which operated under a restrictive
format. In 1990 this was replaced by a consultative council or Majlis al-Shura
where government would not be represented. In the first instance, members
were selected, but subsequently elections were held and the franchise increased.
In 2003, all citizens over 20 years of age were allowed to vote, although the
turnout was very low. However, the scope of its responsibility is not legislative,
but consultative, and in this regard limited to only social and economic matters.
Alongside the expansion of the consultative council, the sultan created
another body, which effectively functions as an appointed upper house in a
bicameral system. In 2003 this new Council of State had a membership of
fifty-seven, including eight women, all appointed by Sultan Qaboos (Peterson,
2004a: 133–134).
The emphasis on al-shura is on consultation, not representation, although
there is an additional dimension in that Ibadi Islam privileges election rather
than appointment, which provides an indigenous challenge to the extent of
Intersections and tensions: The case of Oman 171
royal power (Ghubash, 2006). It is these dimensions of election and con-
sultation that open onto an Omani political tradition beyond that created
through the sultan’s limited ‘Westminster’ imagination. However, as Abdullah
Juma Al-Haj perceptively asked in 1996, is the Oman Consultative Council

an Islamic majlis – al-shura, or is it a new indigenous experiment that

attempts to bridge the gap between the broad concept of al-shura in
Islamic political thought, local Omani traditions of participation in con-
nection to Ibadism, and international concepts of political participation?
(Al-Haj, 1996: 569)

As already indicated above, recent changes, as well as Al-Haj’s commentary

at the time, suggests that an ‘Omani’ reconstruction of different political tradi-
tions is being undertaken. On one level, ‘popular participation is an extension
of the Islamic concept of al-shura in a new form’ (Al-Haj, 1996: 570). On
another level, the council is post-traditional because it is independent from
rulership in a double sense. First, it meets in its own political space, whereas
traditionally it would meet in the spaces of power designated by and for either
the tribal leader or the sultan. And second, this political space is constituted
post-traditionally through a universal franchise, using nominations, electorates,
campaigning, ballot boxes and secret ballots (Al-Haj, 1996: 570).
Nonetheless and notwithstanding a universal franchise and free elections,
the basis for participation in the consultative assemblies is effectively a corporatist
one based on the candidates’ affiliation to one of the Omani tribes or ‘identity’
groups (whether religiously or linguistically constituted). What Valeri discusses
as the development of contemporary Omani ‘identity’ politics is the continuation
of a long tradition of tribal confederation that has been ‘translated’ by the
current Sultan into a corporatist form of politics where the organisation – or
in this instance ‘tribe’ – has been given political recognition by the state as the
only legitimate political actor and basis for representation. This has occurred not
only since the reign of Sultan Qaboos, but was also initiated under the reign of
his father Sa’id bin Taimur. Although somewhat an autarkic pre-oil state, under
bin Taimur’s tutelage, Oman’s state building continued in that its territorial
integrity was maintained against Saudi claims; but as importantly its tribal or
imamate structure was brought under the purview of the state (Rabi, 2006).
During the reign of Sultan Qaboos, though, the politics of corporatist
integration was developed, in that identified ‘identities’ including religious and
linguistic groups, rather than only ‘tribes’ were constructed as quasi-tribes, all
of which could be brought into the state on the basis of their group or corporate
status. As indicated, this corporate status also gave the legitimate basis for the
formation of then electoral politics of the shura. In other words, while political
parties are not prohibited under the constitution, they do not exist, and so
there is no other mediated form of political representation, or other mediated
form through which political conflicts can be expressed. Only the ‘pseudo-tribes’
and the elected consultative form of the shura exist.17
172 Political modernities
There are two observations that have been made by commentators and it is
worthwhile highlighting them. As Jeremy Jones and Nicholas Ridout comment,
perhaps in the thalassic spirit of this paper,

[i]f we draw comparisons between Oman and countries in the West, our
comparisons need to recognise that a gradual process is also a dynamic
process, that any political development will be best served by a certain
openness to the future, to contingency, to seeing how things work best.
(Jones and Ridout, 2005: 392)

Peterson though is more circumspect when he writes:

At its foundations the Omani regime continues to display a highly patri-

monial nature, accentuated by the solitary and absolute figure of Sultan
Qaboos at its acme … Tribal, regional and communal identities persist on
a level of intensity nearly equal to national identity. While the animosities
of previous eras has declined, these subnational identities are often utilised
to tweak the system and procure favours, jobs and money. Representative
institutions such as the Majlis as-shura (Consultative Council) remain
restricted, and freedoms of speech, the arts, and the media are severely
(Peterson, 2005: 10–11)18

However, even these careful and cautiously critical remarks can be thrown
into relief in the wake of the so-called Omani Spring that took place between
February and the end of May in 2011. The Omani Spring evoked what could
be viewed as a new fault line in Oman – not between the neo-Absolutism of
the Sultanate and its citizenry qua welfare citizens, but between two competing
ideas of citizenship itself – the ‘dependent’ rentier based one of welfare and
rights citizenry and the more democratically inspired political‒public citizenship.
As both Valeri and Worrell point out in their analyses and assessments of the
Omani Spring, the main claims that emerged from the protestors, strikers and
activists were geared towards, on the one hand, the expansion or increase in
welfare citizenry with some attention to rights (particularly in the areas of
education and employment), and claims and critiques of corruption within
Sultan Qaboos’s inner circle. These welfarist claims overshadowed claims
made, on the other hand, from the perspective of political‒public citizenship
even though the claim for transparency of decision making against the critique
of corruption could be viewed strictly speaking as from a welfare‒citizen
perspective. Importantly, though and notwithstanding the economism of many
of the claims, these political demands were ‘for a free press, and independent
judiciary and the transfer of law-making powers to the majlis’ (Worrell, 2012:
105; Valeri, 2011: 2).19
By 23 February 2011 a petition had been generated and handed to Sultan
Qaboos that had additional political demands which included
Intersections and tensions: The case of Oman 173
widening the powers of the Shura (Consultative Council); ensuring protec-
tion of public money; holding members of security services accountable;
abolishing exceptional powers enjoyed by many state institutions; strength-
ening the judiciary’s independence; founding an independent constitutional
court; guaranteeing freedom of expression; ending discrimination against
women; affirming the right to create syndicates and professional associations;
limiting the power of security institutions.
(Worrell, 2012: 105)

These are not welfarist demands but ones that want to tip the balance of
power away from the neo-Absolutism of even an enlightened sultan and open
it to a citizenship through political participation and representation beyond the
activity of mere consultation and corporatist or ‘tribe-based’ selection. While the
political response, as distinct from the security one, was slow in coming, none-
theless throughout 2011 Sultan Qaboos announced and then instituted a quite
wide-ranging reorganisation of cabinet to address the issues of corruption and
incompetence. In addition, and more importantly the reorganisation drew on
elected members of the Shura Council, and there was an increased role for it in
terms of legislation and regulation. As significant as the political‒institutional
changes were, an attempt by the sultan was made to ‘engage in direct shura
(consultation) with the protestors by sending representatives to discuss their
demands’ (Worrell, 2012: 105, 107). This active engagement, which evoked
the Omani consultative tradition, ‘alongside the concessions and the over-
whelming support of the Sultan himself, marked the Omani Spring as rather
different from uprisings elsewhere. It is notable that there was a serious
attempt to deal with the protestors’ demands and only limited use of force …’
(Worrell, 2012: 105, 107).20
Significantly, there were no critiques of Qaboos or republican demands
during the period of the short ‘Omani spring’. There were no calls for the
abdication of the sultan, and thus no ‘legitimation crisis’. The centre of
gravity – in Durkheimian terms the social sacred – continues to reside with
and in the still well regarded figure of the sultan. However, as many com-
mentators have pointed out, time is ticking. Sultan Qaboos has no heir and it
is unclear who will succeed him, although apparently there is a somewhat
secretive ‘planned’ succession. Nonetheless, there are emergent claims for
public‒political citizenship alongside or in parallel to the perhaps now
decreasing neo-Absolutism of the sultan. A contemporary challenge for
Oman is whether it can move from a rentier state with its combination of
centralised power and welfare citizenship to a state in which power circulates
and is articulated in a variety of open ways and in both institutional and non-
institutional settings. For example, the formation of trade unions, political
parties and a fully functioning public sphere would challenge the pre-
dominance of corporatist politics, and thus the shura model. In other words,
the challenge is to create a situation where power is circulated and conflict
articulated, and where these become a normal part of the complexity of
174 Political modernities
society, rather than subsumed by a state centred and managed politics, or its
opposite – violence and cruelty.
There are indeed tensions between the imaginaries of modernity, and, in the
case of Oman’s political life, between state-sponsored welfarism, paternalism in
the context of enlightened neo-Absolutism, hybrid representative institutions
and claims for political citizenship. These developments also stand in tension
with the industrial and post-industrial, land- and sea-based social imaginaries,
which require not only Omanis, but also guest workers from the Indian sub-
continent and beyond to enable them to function and continue. The latter are
perhaps a continuation of ‘old’ movements across the Indian Ocean between
the east coast of Africa and the Arab world. These movements of guest
workers also throw the nature of land-based territoriality into relief when
openness is closed as far as welfare and public‒political citizenships are con-
cerned (Kapiszewski, 2006; Ali, 2010).21 The common thread that binds these
competing modern Omani social imaginaries together may not be the al Sa’id
dynasty and its current ruler Sultan Qaboos, but the long history of Oman’s
thalassic imaginary – trade, traffic and openness in the context of opposing
currents and cross winds. Tensions of modernity promise ‘storms’ and ‘tempests’
and calmer weather. In the case of Oman a more moderated climate rather
than ranging storms appears to have been created and this may well be its
own contribution to, and the one positive outcome of, the Arab Spring.

1 I would like to thank Joel Kahn, Maila Stivens, Danielle Petherbridge and James
Field for their comments on an earlier draft of this chapter.
2 See, however, Worrell, 2012: 98–115; Valeri, 2011: 2, 2013a: 179–206; Al-Farsi,
2013, Allen, 2014: 327–328. The Omani Spring will be discussed towards the end
of the chapter.
3 See for example, Smith, 1998: 540–544; Peterson, 2007: 1–36. Peterson is one of
the best scholars on Oman and his reflections on the modernity or otherwise of
Oman will be discussed further in this chapter. The view of Oman as a ‘young
modern country’ is shared in part by the current Sultan, Sultan Qaboos. See
Miller, 1997: 13–18.
4 History, even the long-term is written from the ‘present’, whenever that present
might be. See Rundell, 1998: 1–22. See pages 158–159 (this Volume) for the way in
which the concept of civilization is being deployed here.
5 It is here that some critics of Habermas’s work, for example, often concentrate
their efforts – either for an assumed social evolution of the political form of modernity,
or a circumscribed version of modern state formation that downplays its role in
constructing and coordinating versions of modernity, including the totalitarian
and fundamentalist options. Arnason introduces the notion of modernity as a field of
tensions in his critical discussion of Habermas’s work in ‘Modernity as Project and
as Field of Tensions’, Arnason, 1991: 181–213. See also Arnason, 1997, 2002a;
Arjomand, 2004: 163–179, 2005: 309–326; Eisenstadt, 2003.
6 See Chapter 1; Rundell 2009: 39–53, 1987; Heller, 2011: 141–158, 1999.
7 See Chapter 11; Hefner, 2001: 491–514, 1998: 83–104.
8 Following Valeri the various groupings in Oman are the following: the tribes or
asabiyya based on blood ties with their subgroupings of branches and sections; the
Intersections and tensions: The case of Oman 175
religious groupings of Ibadi Muslims, variously ranging from 48–53 per cent;
Sunni, variously ranging from 45–49 per cent; Shi’i about 3–4 per cent. Hindus make
up another small percentage. These religious groups also exist in conjunction with
other combinations: older migrant groups heralding from Baluchistan, as well as a
group of Omanis who had settled on the eastern African coast including Zanzibar
during the imperial expansion, who have been referred to as the ‘returnees’ since
Zanzibar asserted its independence in 1964. There is also another group of ‘returnees’
to whom Sultan Qaboos made overtures because of their technical expertise who also
originate from the African orientated imperial expansion. Together these groups are
known as ‘Swahilis’ or ‘Zanzibaris’. There is also another group of Omani citizens
of African origin who are descended from slaves brought forcibly from Africa.
There is also an Omani population of Indian origin, which has historically had a
long involvement in maritime trade and is divided into two groups – the Lawatiyya
who are Shi’i and the Banyans who are Hindu. There are also two other Shi’i
groups – the Ajam who originate from Iran and have been in Oman for centuries,
and the Baharina who settled in Muscat over a century ago from the northern
Persian Gulf area. There are also the regional Dhofaris, who though Sunni, also
identify as belonging to the most southern part of the country. While some tribes,
especially those with historic links to the Ibadi imams, have been absorbed or
integrated into commercial, bureaucratic and cabinet areas, there has also been an
attempt to ‘tribalise’ the non-Ibadi groups. The effect of this has been a formal
and informal corporatisation or ‘quasi-tribalisation’ of these groupings that determine
distribution of employment and political allegiances including the selection of candi-
dates and voting patterns (see Valeri, 2013b: 187–192, 156–158). Peterson has also
made similar observations in 2004a: 32–51.
9 Nicolini (2004) and Valeri (2013b) give two quite different interpretations – one
that concentrates on the longer history (Nicolini) and another that concentrates on
the shorter one (Valeri).
10 Thalassocratic societies existed in antiquity, especially around the Mediterranean
basin and included the Phoenicians and the Greek city states. The idea of Oman as
a thalassocratic empire is taken from Nicolini’s excellent study, Nicolini, 2004. See
also Murphy, 2010: 51–76.
11 See Al-Haj, 1996: 569; Jones and Ridout, 2005: 376–392; Peterson, 2005.
12 On state formation and nation building see for example Elias, 1982.
13 World systems theory contests the developmentalist assumptions that were built
into conventional social theory, and by so doing introduced spatial and long-term
power relations into it. Moreover it, like the multiple modernities perspective,
contributed to a theoretical and substantive sensitisation to regional and national
particularities. However, within world systems perspective, this sensibility has been
subsumed by, and subordinated to, the logic of a global economic system. Recent
arguments concerning globalisation have continued the legacy of both modernisa-
tion and world systems theories with an even greater emphasis on the unequal,
colonising and integrating capacity of capitalism at the levels not only of the
economy, but also of culture and politics, making the nation state obsolete. This
chapter contests this particular view.
14 On Omani involvement in the slave trade see also Black, 2011: 72, 131.
15 See Elias, 1982; Giddens, 1985. In Nation State and Violence Giddens gives a
convincing argument as to why European Absolutism should be included within
the topographical history of the nation state. See also Smith, 2006.
16 See Chapters 8 and 9; Rundell, 2004b: 97–111. National‒juridical and economic‒
social (welfare and rights) citizenships can interlock and reinforce one another,
irrespective of the forms of rulership, democratic or otherwise. Hence the welfare
state model can become a model for political modernity with or without democracy.
To be sure, and based on the English case. T. H Marshall gives a graduated
176 Political modernities
account of the development of citizenship beginning with civil citizenship, followed
by political citizenship and finishing with social citizenship. Bryan S. Turner draws
our attention to various historical, national and cultural backgrounds of citizenship
including Christian and Islamic ones. See Marshall, 1950; Turner, 1990:189–217;
Elias, 1996; Elias and Scotson, 1994; Giddens, 1985.
17 As also discussed in Chapter 4, this corporatist arrangement is one of the options
for political modernity and has its advocates. For example, Durkheim prefers this
model, as does Mauss (Durkheim, 1992; Mauss, 1990). Both have their forerunner
in Hegel’s Philosophy of Right.
18 For even more critical responses see Katz, 2004, and Kéchichian’s Review of
Hussein Ghubash, Oman: The Islamic Democratic Tradition’, Middle East Policy,
2007: 142–176. Given the thalassic‒civilisational focus of this discussion, it is beyond
the scope of this current chapter to discuss Hussein’s important book and the more
critical perspectives of Oman’s political modernity at any length. This is the topic
of a subsequent article.
19 There is also another aspect to the protests than simply political or economic
grievances and claims – a new generation of now well-educated Omani youth who
have grown up during the period of Oman’s contemporary renaissance yet feel
alienated and disaffected from employment opportunities and the political process.
‘Omanisation’ has been only partially successful and the disaffection can give rise
to a culture of resentment on the part of those who have been excluded from it. See
Al-Farsi, 2013.
20 For a more critical view see Valeri, 2011.
21 See also and for example, ‘Internationally Recognised Core Labour Standards in
the Sultanate of Oman’, Report for the WTO General Council Review of trade
Policies for the Sultanate of Oman, June 2008.
11 Citizens and strangers:
Cosmopolitanism as an
empty universal

This chapter approaches the issue of cosmopolitanism from the vantage point
of a possibility of hospitality. The notion and action of hospitality throws into
relief some issues that are at the heart of political cosmopolitanism, but
cannot be addressed by it. This is because these issues do not necessarily
revolve around the category of the citizen (however extended), but around the
categories of stranger and outsider, which, however, are usually conflated. In
order to explore and critique this conflation and thus open the topic of cos-
mopolitanism this chapter is propelled by two arguments.1 The first argument
refers to the ways in which the notions of strangers and outsiders have been
reconfigured for the lives of modern subjects, whether they are citizens belonging
to nation states or have cosmopolitan attitudes. The second argument is that
modern cosmopolitanism cannot be understood without reference to the con-
tinuing relevance of the nation state. Nation building continues to constitute
the hiatus between the older and modern meanings of cosmopolitanism. This
‘Westphalian’ change transformed and disaggregated the older meanings of
cosmopolitanism and continues to do so.
The chapter argues that the standard cosmopolitan extension of citizenship
forms to international contexts risks reproducing the exclusion of ‘outsiders’
by nation states, even democratic ones. It explores a hospitable dimension of
cosmopolitanism that gives it its orientating value in the condition of modern,
contingent strangerhood. In this sense cosmopolitanism is ‘empty’, open and

Strangers, citizens, outsiders

The history of classical (Greco-Roman) cosmopolitanism is the history of the
ideal of being a ‘citizen of the world’ or a ‘citizen of the cosmos’, as against
merely being a citizen of a city state or an empire (notwithstanding how cos-
mopolitan some city states and empires in the classical period actually were).
It is also the history of hospitality towards strangers tied to the plight of
excommunication and exile. It still carries these two meanings in modernity.2
178 Political modernities
Nonetheless, the meanings and experiences of cosmopolitanism and stran-
gerhood have undergone significant changes since antiquity. In modernity,
strangerhood occurs through the mobility of migrations from the countryside
to the city and from one nation to another, because of economic or political
factors, war or famine, and it gives the stranger a sense of contingency. In other
words, the experience of migration ruptures the sense of home, or permanency
of location. More generally, modernity increases the complexity of contexts
and patterns of interaction, as well as the multidimensionality of roles and
possibilities. The stranger is no longer constituted by the differentiation
between who is known and who is not. Rather, moderns are all now strangers
defined by the contingency and complexity of location and roles, and, as
indicated in Chapter 3, I refer to them as contingent strangers.
In the context of the current topic the home that gives contingent strangers
their sense of location is usually that of the nation, and the identity that it
provides is that of the citizen. But what type of citizens are contingent strangers?
In modernity a cleavage is forged in which people qua contingent strangers may
come to live in, or between, at least four configurations of citizenship: the
national–juridical, the political–public, the social–economic or welfarist and
the cosmopolitan. These configurations may or may not intersect. We live in the
context of permanent and irresolvable tensions between these four forms of
citizenships, and this is especially the case when modern contingent strangers
find themselves in the midst of multiracial, multi-ethnic and multi-religious
environments at home, or in search of new ones. They live their lives, not as one
single lived experience, but as many experiences, among other contingent
strangers who are usually doing the same.
The modern nation state and its project of nation building attempts to
solve the issue of the mobility, location and identity of contingent strangers in
territorial and legal terms such that it displaces the ‘world-based’ and cosmo-
logical histories of cosmopolitanism. It is in this context of nation building
that the contingent stranger can also become an outsider. The outsider is the
contingent stranger who is constructed as such from the position of the nation
state and its own cultural attitude of nationalism. The outsider is the modern
category of exclusion, while the category of the contingent stranger is not.
In other words, the category of the outsider is generated on the basis of a
boundary marked between ‘us’ and ‘them’, rather than simply a mobile con-
tingency. It is juridically instituted and legitimated as a boundary marker
from the position of a nation state. Outsiders are those contingent strangers
without legal entitlement to either arrive or settle within a given territory. As
Jean Cohen puts it, ‘citizenship in such a state is an instrument of social closure.
It always has an ascriptive dimension and it always establishes privilege
insofar as it endows members with particular rights denied to non-members’
(Cohen, 1999: 252). The outsider can thus be vilified and made into an object
of fear among the many different fears about modernity. In the contemporary
context, the paradigmatic figures of the outsider are the refugee and the guest
worker. They are not only contingent strangers, but also foreigners or ‘aliens’.
Cosmopolitanism as an empty universal 179
Against this modern background, the meaning of cosmopolitanism has
itself become disaggregated and multidimensional in order to address contingent
strangerhood, the constant making and un-making of nation states, aliens and
outsiders. It involves at least the following four aspects that have often been
separated from one another. These aspects could be termed political cosmo-
politanism, concerned with trans-regional democratic institutional formations
and public spheres, both of which may involve an idea of global citizenship;
juridical cosmopolitanism, which is concerned with trans-regional governance
from a juridical perspective; hospitality towards the stranger as an outsider or
refugee; and a cultural cosmopolitanism, or the attitude often found in ‘world
cities’ inhabited by people from many locations.3 The metropolis has con-
ventionally been a home for the mobility of contingent strangers as they move
from, or within, one national setting to another, sometimes caught between them.
Leaving the issues of hospitality and political and juridical cosmopolitanisms
momentarily to one side, the notion of cultural cosmopolitanism allows us to
position cosmopolitanism as a category beyond its reference point in the metro-
polis. Rather than merely a metropolitan ‘style of life’ (to use Georg Simmel’s
term) enjoying a greater range of personal ‘choices’ and possibilities from an
increased range of social selections, cultural cosmopolitanism emphasises the
intersections of cultures in the context of a sui generis recognition and
acceptance of cultural diversity. In this sense, cultural cosmopolitanism not
only overcomes the arbitrary boundaries between cultures, but also refers to a
transformation in both form and content that occurs once cultures interact.
However, from a cosmopolitan perspective the issue is not solely one of forms
of cultural diversity and new multicultural combinations. Rather, it concerns
the open relationships that are entered into and established between diverse
cultures. Cosmopolitanism in both its older and more modern guises evokes an
attitude of openness and tolerance towards these cultural differences. Openness
and tolerance are the common threads that connect each of the diverse meanings
of modern cosmopolitanism together.
Yet openness and tolerance entail that a universally orientated value is
either implicitly or explicitly invoked. An appeal to a common and shared
humanity, or more substantively to the freedom of politics or of expression, can
be made in its more modern guise that separates it from its older cosmological
one. Moreover, as Agnes Heller points out, what is unique about the modern
meanings of freedom and humanity are that the arguments about their
meaning and points of reference function as a continuing historically created
and shared cultural arche which cannot be grounded, but to which openness
and tolerance refer. In other words, there are different interpretations of what
the universality of humankind means, which are encompassed by the narratives
that embody it (Heller, 1999, 2011: 129–140). Modern cosmopolitanism is, at
its core, a narrative of freedom.
However, although historically interpretable, this universalistic notion of
freedom is ‘empty’ in Kant’s sense – it is unconditional. The ‘space’ of the
universal is left open not only in the spirit of the principle of freedom, but
180 Political modernities
also in the possibility that it is created and interpreted in ongoing ways. There
are not only the interpretations of freedom, but also a creativity at the core of
these interpretations, and it is for this reason that one can speak of a cosmopolitan
imaginary and not simply of a cosmopolitan cultural attitude, interpretation
or perspective, or of cosmopolitan political or legal arrangements. The cosmo-
politan imaginary embraces all of these aspects, but it is not reducible to them.4
There are, then, tensions and conflicts between nation state imperatives,
which include the democratic ideas of rulership by contingent strangers qua
citizens, and cosmopolitanism. It is to the tensions that we now turn in some

Between two worlds: Two forms of citizenship and the

closure of nation states
The contemporary world has been viewed as one in which the boundaries of,
and relations between, nation states and the movements of contingent strangers
have been transformed, even ‘globalised’. However, this contemporary emphasis
on globalisation minimises a more complex set of configurations against
which contemporary versions of cosmopolitanism continue to be framed. The
trend towards a trans- or post-national reality continues to be underwritten by
the long history of nation-state formation, initiated by the Peace of Westphalia
in the mid-seventeenth century in the wake of the religious wars. Nation-state
formation became the enduring context for modern cosmopolitanism up to
and including the current period. Nation states still have active roles pursuing
their interests, underwriting and responding to the processes of new inter-
dependencies and intergovernmental arrangements, all of which assume, with
the second article of the UN Charter, that the nation state is still the basic
‘unit’ for juridical authority and legitimacy. This is especially the case if the
international bodies such as the United Nations and international treaties and
conventions are to be meaningful at all.
Citizenship conferred by a national‒juridical state, even when it is expanded
to form a multinational entity such as the European Union, denotes those
contingent strangers who belong to or fall under its remit. It thus denotes a
nation state’s preoccupation with its monopolisation of the mechanisms of
control – of territory, of revenue, of its inhabitants as contingent strangers
over which it has jurisdiction, of determinations of inclusion and exclusion, of
identity and belief, of entry and exit, and of its capacity to enact treaties and
conventions, war and peace.
However, the contemporary notion of citizenship and the contingent
stranger qua citizen is not wholly exhausted by its reference to the nation
state. Another configuration of citizenship develops in modernity in which
citizens are real or potential sovereigns and rulers of this state. This second
meaning of citizenship pertains to an idea of rulership that stems from the
demos and takes the form of democratic rule. Contingent strangers may
become political actors in public and political spheres in order to contest state
Cosmopolitanism as an empty universal 181
arrangements and possibly form democratically constituted political institutions
(Bohman, 2007; Lefort, 2007). As indicated above, when this occurs con-
tingent strangers become political–public citizens. In other words, a distinction
and differentiation occurs within the modern category of citizenship, between
its national‒juridical and its democratic‒public forms. Each vantage point
redefines the nature of rulership in a modern register.5
Jürgen Habermas has argued that these two citizenship forms are conjoined
in the modern constitutional democratic state. As indicated in Chapters 1 and 8,
he points to the patterns of procedural democracy that have displaced both
ethnie and nation as the primary mechanisms of social integration of citizens
into the nation state, at least in the West. This displacement has occurred in
order to address and resolve the question of living in and between two worlds
simultaneously (Habermas, 1996: 281–294, 1997a: 491–518; see also Chapter 8,
this volume). Without overlooking Habermas’s recognition of the tension that
exists between national and republican identities of the nation state and its
citizenry, what is of interest in this context is his insistence on the internal
relation between law and democracy, or between the two forms of citizenship –
the national‒juridical and the political‒public. Habermas argues that modern
law is ‘a medium that allows for a much more abstract notion of civic or
public autonomy’ (Habermas, 1997a: 505). Modern law guarantees freedom
because it is backed by a system of norms that are both coercive and positive,
and it is this double feature that enables modern law to become associated
with the issue of political legitimacy. According to Habermas, the constitutive
features of law in republican constitutional democracies are that it coordinates,
mediates and guarantees, rather than simply legitimates in the Weberian
sense, the symmetrical relationships of reciprocal recognition between contingent
strangers who are, in this sense, abstract bearers of this recognition (Habermas,
1997a: 447, 1985: 95–116). Habermas’s notion of legitimacy, then, goes well
beyond the Weberian version in that it is built up through not simply the relation
between law and coercion, but more so democratic reflexivity through which
law formation itself is an abstracted medium of the polity. In Habermas’s
version legitimacy is a ‘discursively rendered agreement’ in which laws and
decisions are made and remade on the basis of claims that are redeemable
through practical‒rational argumentation.
However, more than practical‒rational argumentation is required. Internal
to the formation of a legal‒democratic system is a cultural form that orientates
and gives it depth. As Habermas points out, in a world that is both inter-
dependent and pluralised a democratic culture provides a point of orientation
for contingent strangers (Habermas, 1996: 290).6 This aspect of a co-determining
cultural horizon is implicitly present throughout Habermas’s work as a whole,
and informs his writings on nationalism, religion and citizenship.
However, a tension emerges between and within nation states – even
democratic ones – along a fault line determined by the distinction between
‘us’ and ‘them’. Seen from the perspective of national‒juridical citizenship,
even constitutionally and procedurally anchored democratic citizenship can
182 Political modernities
be subsumed under the coalescence of ethnicity, religiosity, regionalism and
nation, which can invoke formal‒procedural rules and prejudices that exclude
‘outsiders’. Here, while ‘the democratic component of the citizenship principle
is interpreted to entail self-rule by a demos’ this self-rule can also be ethnically,
religiously or regionally co-determined (Cohen, 1999: 254). In the many cases
in which this occurs, these extra-political determinations of the nation state,
such as national, religious and linguistic identities, merge with the formal
political‒democratic component and the latter is subsumed to the national‒
juridical state that rules all the inhabitants of a territory. In this situation ‘the
demos will inevitably understand itself as a nation’, even against the grain of
its universalising perspective (Cohen, 1999: 254). In other words, once the
notions of contingent strangerhood, citizenship and outsiders are invoked the
nation often becomes the sole point of reference. It is also the reference point
both against and with which modern cosmopolitanism is constructed.

The cosmopolitan imaginary: An open citizenship form

As the above discussion of Habermas’s work indicates, there are co-determining
imaginaries that constitute the citizenships of contingent strangers. One is the
enclosing imaginary of the non-political dimension of the nation. Another is
formal democratic citizenship, which can either work in tandem with or
circumvent national‒juridical citizenship. If the circumvention is to occur, then
another citizenship form is often alluded to or combined with the formal‒
procedural democratic one – the opening imaginary of cosmopolitanism. As it is
constituted as an empty universal, cosmopolitan citizenship can provide
democratic and rights-based citizenships with an open imaginary that can
contest the fault line between ‘us’ and ‘them’ within and beyond the nation state.
It is this imaginary that also informs the notion of hospitality towards outsiders,
if it exists at all. Thus, strictly speaking, cosmopolitan hospitality addresses the
issue of the contingent stranger qua outsider, once he or she arrives on a foreign
shore seeking protection outside or beyond the parameters of both national‒
juridical terms and formal‒procedural democratic ones. The claim here is that
in modernity, all contingent strangers – including those outsiders who are
labelled as such from the position of the national‒territorial state with its own
juridical notion of citizenship – are in principle cosmopolitan citizens from
the vantage point of the cosmopolitan imaginary.7
However, there is an internal tension in cosmopolitanism between the cos-
mopolitan imaginary and the political forms that it may take. In recent history,
models of political cosmopolitanism, understood institutionally as suprana-
tional organisations such as the United Nations and regional federations such as
the European Union, have emerged which provide umbrellas for the develop-
ment of international protocols and systems of justice, and as importantly
trans-national political institutions and polities or polois. As David Held and
others have argued, these institutions provide a basis for the development of a
cosmopolitan, democratic community that is more than a structure for
Cosmopolitanism as an empty universal 183
mediation between nation states. Political cosmopolitanism refers to actors who
are not so much national‒political citizens as they are part of trans-national
polities, such as the European Union or trans-national public spheres. James
Bohman, for example, argues that political cosmopolitanism has seen the
development and expansion of trans-state and international public spheres
that ‘facilitate interaction between various constituencies, collect information,
[and] make policy alternatives and comparisons available’ (Bohman, 2007: 155;
Crittenden, 2011). For Bohman, political, democratic cosmopolitanism ‘means
that borders do not mark the difference between the democratic inside and the
non-democratic outside of the polity, between those who have the normative
power and communicative freedom to make claims to justice and those who
do not’ (Bohman, 2007: 12).9 In principle, this should extend not only to
regionalised groups and communities, but also to those who are outside
national polities, such as refugees and guest workers.
Nonetheless, it still remains unclear whether the issue of the hospitality
towards the outsider has been answered, or if it is still an open question whether
political cosmopolitanism – and, for that matter, juridical cosmopolitanism –
can address this issue. In this context, one can follow Jacques Derrida’s analysis
of Kant’s Perpetual Peace, in the distinction he makes between a right to visit
and a right to reside. Derrida ‘translates’ this distinction into one between
absolute and conditional hospitality.10 Even if they imply one another, for
him there is an indissociability and heterogeneity between them. Conditional
hospitality belongs to the historical specificity of any form of hospitality,
whether it is given in the name of the father, the household, the community, a
polis or a nation state. It has a formal, calculable and juridical dimension to it
(Derrida, 2000: 149).11 As such, the name and the identity of the outsider
matters to the host – once named and identified the outsider can slip from the
(non-) identity of an indifferently perceived outsider to a potential enemy and/
or become subject to the policing mechanisms of the state, with its defined points
of entry and exit. Identity becomes permanent and residence temporary.
Universality has reached its limit (Derrida, 2000: 27–29, 77). Hospitality now
belongs to the language of rights pertaining to juridically constituted modernity
that is procedural in character. Against this backdrop of juridical hospitality,
the outsider as refugee can be given a quasi-legal status, and hence be subject to
rights, protocols, conventions and conditions of temporary or semi-permanent
residence. The refugee is caught in a nether world in which their modernity is
one of bureaucratic and juridical processes, the cruelty of border closures and the
‘generosity’ or ‘philanthropy’ of quotas instigated by national or supranational
In contrast, unconditional hospitality is, in Derrida’s terms, ‘a law without
a law’, and for him it does not simply pertain to either visitation or residential
rights, so to speak (Derrida, 2000: 83). For Derrida, it instead resembles Kant’s
notion of unconditionality: it must not pay a debt or be governed by duty, and
as such it is indifferent to the specificity of, and what it expects from, ‘the
other’. In this sense, it is beyond the law as a code that prescribes and sets the
184 Political modernities
limit to the time and space of hospitality. Unconditional hospitality sets no
such limits (Derrida, 2000: 81, 147).
For Derrida, we are ‘caught’ between these two regimes of hospitality. In a
different language, a tension exists between these two modes, a tension internal
to the constitution of modernity, even cosmopolitan modernity. Yet, within the
context of cosmopolitan modernity, Derrida’s notion of unconditional hospi-
tality can be given greater shape than he suggests. To be sure, for Derrida,
unconditional hospitality is a gesture and one that is asymmetrical at the
particular moment that it is invoked. However, as mentioned above, and in a
way that unexpectedly enables a dialogue to be established between not only
Kant and Derrida, but also Derrida, Cornelius Castoriadis and Agnes Heller,
this gesture belongs to and has content derived from the modern value of
humanity qua freedom, which also includes a regard for the other in the
context of their contingency. It is here that cosmopolitanism becomes an empty
universal. It is both open and interpretable beyond the limits of territoriality
and democratic proceduralism. Thus, this first hospitable dimension – the
absolute or unconditional – refers to a cosmopolitan imaginary that comes
from a capacity to recognise others qua others as contingent strangers, and
not merely as outsiders. From this perspective, cosmopolitanism is not simply
a mobilising category of a right that is legalised, and can be instituted, and
under which one either does or does not fall.
In other words, in contrast to Derrida’s position a value of cosmopolitanism
qua common humanity is invoked. This cosmopolitan imaginary is an inter-
pretable universality without borders that takes the unconditional – the cate-
gorical imperative of freedom internal to the construction of both the modern
idea of the subject and humankind as a whole – as a background orientation,
a continually, historically created and shared imaginary (Heller, 2011: 129–140;
Bohman, 1997: 179–200, 2007; Habermas 1997b: 113–154). In this sense, one
can talk of cosmopolitan citizenship as an empty or unconditional horizon of
possibility, rather than as an instituted law, even though it may gain juridical
From a cosmopolitan perspective, contingent strangers, outsiders, and
social and political institutions do not require conditional notions of freedom but
ones that are open-ended, unconditional. In other words, contingent strangers
can perhaps live with the sense that modernity is a problem not because it is
dysfunctional, has no depth, or provides no solace, but rather because its lack
of fit or its openness creates spaces of interpretation in the background
‘imaginary’ of cosmopolitanism that can never be fully instituted or juridified.
However, this imaginary of ungroundable freedom acts as a limit. Contingent
strangers qua cosmopolitans have to agree on this limit, even if, and only
implicitly, they agree on nothing else.
The notion of cosmopolitanism can thus be extended beyond its more
classical origins, but also beyond its modern political and juridical versions.
Cosmopolitanism and a cosmopolitan imaginary is more than a functioning
(or non-functioning) form of interstate institutional mediation, more than a
Cosmopolitanism as an empty universal 185
deliberative democracy with a vibrant public sphere of opinions, social
movements and informal associations. The cosmopolitan imaginary is one of
the many imaginaries of modernity, of which the gestural dimension of
unconditional hospitality comes from a capacity to recognise the other qua
other as a contingent stranger and not reducing this otherness to the juridical
condition of an outsider.
Hence, this cosmopolitan imaginary is not an empirical one – it is indifferent
to the actual ‘who’ of the contingent stranger and outsider. Nation states and
the contingent strangers who inhabit them can have a cosmopolitan attitude to
other contingent strangers who come to their borders and shores. The attitude
of cosmopolitanism is indifferent to the prejudgements and prejudices that are
mobilised around the outsider as a stigmatised, illegal alien. The outsider is
only a contingent stranger, with the possibility that the multidimensionality of
modernity’s empty freedom becomes open to him or her. For, as Hannah
Arendt notes, ‘if it is good to be recognised, it is better to be welcomed,
because this is something that we can neither earn nor deserve’ (Arendt, 1969).
That is, hospitality is open-ended in its unconditional gesture. It is neither
awarded nor given. Echoing Arendt, Derrida also argues that it is ‘a welcome
without reserve and without calculation, an exposure without limit to whoever
arrives’ (Derrida, 2005: 6–9).
And yet there is a tension here within the cosmopolitan imaginary, between
the gesture of the welcome and the conditions that are imposed on the con-
tingent stranger qua outsider by the hosting society, such as learning the host’s
language and participating in its everyday life. As Gideon Baker writes, hospi-
tality ‘is forever caught between the particularity that is the [contingent]
stranger who comes, and the universalising move whereby the [contingent]
stranger, in order to be welcomed, must first be translated into the host’s own
idiom’ (Baker, 2009: 107–128, 121; Heller, 2011: 203–224). Moreover, there is
another tension between the outsider who becomes again a contingent stranger
and the multiple modern imaginaries that he or she co-creates and participates
in. In the context of the contingencies of wars between and within nations, as
well as natural disasters such as famines, unconditional cosmopolitan hospitality
is a necessary and continuing gesture. Once ‘arrived’, though, the contingent
stranger is no longer an outsider, just someone who participates in the many
worlds of the modern, and this carries with it its own responsibilities on
both sides.
The latter point goes to the heart of the relational form that moderns and
cosmopolitans invoke if they wish to engage with others. There are many such
relational forms, from the most administrative and cruel to the most friendly
and generous. Notwithstanding the gains of political cosmopolitanism, its
relational dimension, captured under the term of cultural cosmopolitanism, is
the most enduring and robust aspect of the cosmopolitan imaginary.12 It
points us to the inner, creative and imaginary dimension through which even
its political dimension coheres. Here there is what might be termed ‘a her-
meneutics of differences’ by and for contingent strangers themselves. This is a
186 Political modernities
hermeneutics of distancing and self-distancing. It is a detached and distanciated
mutual recognition between contingent strangers that does not lead to mutual
identity, mutual consensus, sublation to a more integrated social condition, or
a quest for inner authenticity. Rather, this can lead to an open model of the
creative interaction with, and learning from and about, others. This learning
occurs on both sides, and results in the development of multiple perspectives,
increased possibilities for interaction and understanding, and the capacity not
to integrate or judge others, but to live with them. In this sense one can make
a distinction between the cosmopolitan openness towards differences and parti-
cularistic closures towards them, which can lead to fundamentalisms where one
difference – ‘mine’ – is viewed as primary and absolutised. As Heller notes,
this latter case ‘excludes mediation and discursive interaction altogether … no
one is duty bound to understand the other’s point of view’ (Heller, 2011: 189–202,
198). The hermeneutics of difference is a type of hermeneutics of unconditional
hospitality that straddles the particularities of contingent strangers, the mis-
understandings as much as the understandings and the attempts to open these
up and keep them open. In the condition of the hermeneutics of difference,
the co-presences that hospitality invokes are constituted in a way that either
implicitly or explicitly allows the gaps of misunderstanding and incomprehen-
sion to remain. It also enables a condition of relative independence to exist on
both sides of the relation, such that needs and desires are articulated in their
own terms. Hence the position becomes not one of conditioned articulation
and identification with the other, but a reflexive articulation in which the
conditions under which this reflexive articulation proceeds can also be raised.
In contrast to enclosing options, the cosmopolitan imaginary is akin to a
voyage ‘where we never know ahead whom we are going to meet during our
journey, whether we recognise – as once Iphigenia and Orestes did – our
brothers and sisters among the [contingent] strangers’ (Heller, 2011: 202). In
the end, perhaps the only option, among all of the options of modernity, is to
keep the tension open between the gesture of the welcome and the openness
towards different worlds and the challenges that interaction with others
brings. If there is an unfinished and open dimension to modernity, then the
cosmopolitan imaginary encapsulates it.

1 I would like to thank Tom Bailey and Danielle Petherbridge for their comments on
earlier drafts of this essay.
2 See McMahon, 2008: 5–17; Nussbaum, 1994; Dallmayr, 2012: 171–186; Benhabib,
2006; Toulmin, 1990; Jacobs, 2006.
3 See Dallmayr, 2012; Delanty, 2009; Beck, 2006; Crittenden, 2011; Brown and
Held, 2010.
4 This formulation leans on the work of Cornelius Castoriadis and the way in which
the core idea of Kant’s ‘X’ can be repositioned around the faculty of the imagination
and not the faculty of reason. It is through the work of imagining that something
that is not yet present can indeed be created. In this sense, the universalistic notion
Cosmopolitanism as an empty universal 187
of freedom is both ‘empty’ and open. The emptiness refers to its unconditional
indeterminacy when it lends itself to openness. This will be discussed further below.
See Castoriadis, 1991: 81–123.
5 Welfare citizenship is different again and points to arguments concerning the
participation in and distribution of social wealth according to criteria of entitlement.
6 Habermas’s more recent essays on religion are instructive here. See for example
Habermas, 2008: 114–147, 271–311, 302.
7 The following discussion will concentrate on the political and hospitable aspects of
cosmopolitanism against a backdrop of its open horizon. I will leave to one side a
discussion of trans-regional governance from a juridical‒cosmopolitan perspective,
although this will be addressed implicitly in my discussion of Jacques Derrida’s
treatment of conditional hospitality below.
8 See Held, 1997: 235–51, 2010: 229–248; Raulet, 2005; Heins, 2011.
9 Political cosmopolitanism also assumes, like democratic thinking generally, a
vibrant tension between democratic institutions and public spheres. These public
spheres include dissenting voices that should be self-authoring and not stand behind
the mask of anonymity in order to be heard. The articulation of all issues can then
become open to debate, discussion and deliberation in such a way that public agree-
ments can be reached and public disagreements lived with. In all of its dimensions
it is assumed that everyone accepts not only the limit of the publicity and decision
making of public‒political institutions, but also the limits imposed by the respon-
sibility of their own self-authorship and the recognition of the self-authorship of
others, even in the permanent condition of differences and disagreement. Political
cosmopolitanism provides a context in which both contingent strangers and outsiders
can exist in a mode other than those of indifferent isolated contingency or one-
dimensionalising nationalism, both of which are exclusionary. They can participate in
and minimally ascribe to the value of universalised humanity and of self-authoring
democracy, prior to enacting it as a mode of deliberation and argumentation.
10 Kant’s ambivalence is shown in his brief and unelaborated remarks on the outsider,
which he calls the ‘stranger’. In Perpetual Peace he states that the outsider ‘can
indeed be turned away, if this can be done without causing his death, but must not
be treated with hostility so long as he behaves in a peaceable manner in the place
he happens to be’. Kant argues that the outsider should not claim to be a guest,
and thus expect to be welcomed as a friend into the ‘household’ of the national
community. The relationship here is one of mutual peacefulness and not mutual
conviviality. See Kant, 1991: 93–131, emphasis added; see also Brown, 2010: 308–327.
11 The following discussion of Derrida’s work draws on Rundell, 2004b: 97–111.
12 As indicated in Chapter 8 (this volume), it is posited that cosmopolitan relationality is
constituted as a form of modern symmetrical reciprocity. In this sense, cosmopoli-
tanism, like any social form, is co-constituted at least in two dimensions – it has
an intersubjective one and an imaginary one. This chapter concentrates on cosmo-
politanism from its imaginary dimension, which also throws into relief the always
incomplete nature of gift giving.
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Part 3
In search of transcendence
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12 Multiple modernities, sacredness,
and the democratic imaginary:
Religion as a stand-in category

Often when religion is discussed the topic is not about religion, as such.
Religion becomes a catch-all category for other issues, topics and concerns.1
This chapter aims to tease out what some of these concerns may be if religion
is viewed as a stand-in category. From the vantage point of modern multi-faith
and multicultural societies religion becomes a topic that concerns the recognition
of religious pluralism and of cultural differences, and hence cultural encounters
between groups, especially in the context of the complexity of the modern world.
When one speaks of ‘the modern world’ it is also a less than straightforward
concept. In the history of concept formation it has often been referred to as
secularisation, modernisation and historical progress. In more recent social
theory the concept of ‘multiple modernities’ has emerged as a way of capturing
both the regional diversity of modernising impulses, and the modern reality of
living with its multiple dimensions, often in long-term historical contexts.
One can critically draw on Habermas’s engagement with the term post-
secular as a way of looking at the problem of encounters and coexistences of
multiple modernities and religiously constituted forms of belief and ways of
life. It is here that religion can also be a signal for the way in which such
intersections and coexistences may be articulated, ignored or dogmatically or
fundamentalistically ‘resolved’. This chapter is concerned with the way in
which this intersection may be articulated democratically.
Moreover, the intersection itself opens onto the way in which the social
meaning, which is imbedded in the intersections between religion and modernity,
is socially produced or created. In other words it opens onto the nature of
socially produced meaning itself, and religion has also often become a stand-
in category through which the problem of the creation of meaning has been
articulated. This issue of the social creation of meaning has often been con-
ceptualised in terms of a great divide between the pre- or non-modern and the
modern. Within the classical traditions of the social sciences, of which sociology
and anthropology are its handmaidens, Durkheim’s work, more than any other,
asks whether the distinction between religious and modern societies that besets
the founding tradition is a robust distinction. In summary, then, religion may
192 In search of transcendence
become a stand-in category for the topics of modernity, encounters between it
and religiosity, and the production of social meaning. In order first to explore
the topic of the production of social meaning, our analysis will begin with
Durkheim’s notion of the sacred, before turning to the problem of religion
and modernity.

Durkheim and the problem of the sacred

It can be argued that the Durkheimian problem of the sacred is a way of
suggesting that no society can ‘live’ without a sense of its sacredness irre-
spective of whether this is couched in either ‘religious’ or ‘secular’ terms. In
the context of theorising the ‘great divide’ between the so-called pre-modern
and the secular modern, Durkheim’s work is a restful point of orientation
because in his hands this ‘divide’ is thrown into relief and problematised.
Durkheim’s work is important because he theorises the social from the vantage
point of an ontologically posited idea of a social creation or socially created
meaning that cannot be divided into a neat distinction between the religious
and the secular.
In a summary here that draws on the discussion undertaken in Chapter 4,
Durkheim posits his version of the sacred through his notion of collective
representation. What stands behind his particular notion of collective repre-
sentation is a complex formulation through which Durkheim presents his
social ontology.2 For Durkheim, collective representations indicate the project
of the humanisation of the human being from a pre-social being to a social
one, that is, one who opens outward towards social life by being disrupted by
it. Collective representations represent two ways of viewing the social condition
of the human being – one that is simultaneously caught or enclosed within the
profane world of everyday life where values are particularistically viewed. It is
a world of meaning, but one that is enclosed and limited in scope. The second
world, which Durkheim terms the sacred, stands from the position of opening
the social individual outwards to a larger context of meaning, and thus
meaning-filled social interactions. Its horizon expands outwards beyond social
individuals and thus is the socially universal point of orientation. None-
theless, the next step of considering openness as a characteristic of the sacred
world more generally cannot be taken immediately. For Durkheim, openness
at the level of the sacred, that is, of collective representations themselves,
requires specific social conditions in order for this specific type of social
opening – otherwise termed reflexivity – to occur.
In his earlier formulation of the conscience collective, in The Division of
Labour in Society, the sacred was posited as beliefs and sentiments; yet in the
context of his later work, of which The Elementary Forms of Religious Life is
the most representative, beliefs and sentiments are but one aspect of the self-
representation of society to itself and its membership, which, for Durkheim, is
their core feature. In the light of Lukes’s seminal suggestion sacred collective
representations are reflexive ‘forms of interpretations’, rather than functional
Sacredness, and the democratic imaginary 193
and integrative mechanisms or causal structures (Lukes, 1987: 465–467). In
Lukes’s view, the concept of (sacred) collective representations is Durkheim’s
way of saying that human beings construct an interpretation of the world
through constituted beliefs and practices, and by so doing render the world,
and their own place in it, intelligible. In this version, the sacred, as Durkheim
himself states, is ‘a system of ideas with which the individuals represent to
themselves the society of which they are members, and the obscure but intimate
relations which they have with it’ (Durkheim, 1976: 225).
In this way, collective representations are cosmological, in that they are
symbolic forms through which the natural and social environments, which,
for Durkheim, constitute the totality of human existence, are interpreted in a
comprehensive way (Durkheim, 1976: 9). For Durkheim, the comprehensiveness
of a collective cosmology is twofold. In Primitive Classification Durkheim
argues that collective representations are the symbolic forms through which
the natural and social worlds are interpreted as intellectual and moral endea-
vours. To be sure, Durkheim sees the Kantian universalism of the categories of
time, space and morality as social creations, but ones that have a synthetic
character. As he states in Primitive Classification written in 1903 with Mauss,

society was not simply a model which classificatory thought followed; it

was its own divisions which served as divisions for a system of classification.
The first logical categories were social categories; the first classes of
things were classes of men; into which these things were integrated.
(Durkheim and Mauss, 1963: 82)

Intellectually, collective representations ‘translate’ the natural world into an

intelligible language through concepts that provide a unitary and cohesive
interpretive field. Concepts, so Durkheim argues, depersonalise and objectify
reality, and enable it to be classified in terms that demarcate and delineate it
spatially, temporally and hierarchically (Durkheim, 1976: 429; Durkheim and
Mauss, 1963: 4–5, 85–87). In other words, they enable humankind to more
effectively mobilise its relation to nature, and in this sense, they become ‘instru-
ments of action’. Concepts, and the systems of knowledge that are formed
through them, are epistemological in the sense that they have a truth content in
relation to the reality that they describe. More so, and more importantly, for
him, though, they are technico-pragmatic in the sense that they are a more
efficient means than effects or sentiments, for example, through which external
reality can be harnessed and controlled (Durkheim, 1983: 45–49).
As importantly, though, for Durkheim, collective representations are also
the forms through which the force of social‒moral life takes shape in a way that
is collectively binding and coherent.3 In this process of interaction within the
realm of the sacred, social actors are not so much integrated into collective
representations, but opened by them. This entails for Durkheim that the tonality
for intersubjectivity is found in the rituals of the sacred and not in the minutiae
of everyday life or the profane.4 Intersubjectivity and meaning are combined
194 In search of transcendence
in the rituals of the sacred in what might be termed creative-ritual action that
both opens the individual to the world of sacredness, and ties him/her to it.
Collective representations are part and parcel of the way through which social
individuals understand themselves and others, and represent this understanding
in symbolic forms. As such, for Durkheim, collective representations are not
disconnected from the lives of social actors for they are acted out, remade
and reaffirmed in the rites and rituals ‘in which individuals represent to
themselves the society of which they are members’ (Durkheim, 1976: 225). In
this sense, they are the primary media through which creativity and individual
self-expression can be articulated.
In Durkheim’s view, then, sacred collective representations tie individual
and social creativity together; they are the forms through which a singular
individual transforms his or her own creative life into one that is simultaneously
individual and social. In Durkheim’s view sacred collective representations
become meaningful for the individuals concerned. As such, the social creations
that the social subject either participates in or creates, take the form of inter-
pretations within existing collective representations, or in specific circumstances,
the creation of new ones. In other words, for Durkheim, the sacred provides
both the external‒objective ‘fact’ of social life and the context of inter-
subjectively shared meaningful existence. In this sense, all societies are sacred
and social actors constitute their intersubjectivity meaningfully by not only
drawing on them, but also by creating them.
This account of Durkheim’s notion of sacred collective representations
draws out an ontologically constituted dimension of the formation of all societies,
that is, of their dimension of meaning, irrespective of whether this is formed
wholly through language or symbols. Durkheim, though, seems to suggest that
social thought and social action is constituted either linguistically through
socially produced categories, or through symbols, which become their short-
hand, even if emotion and ritual are imbedded in each. In comparison, for
Cornelius Castoriadis, meaning cannot be so constituted – there is always a
creative, inarticulable and inexhaustible dimension that cannot be rendered
through language, symbols, materiality or culture. He terms this inarticulable
dimension social imaginaries, and this term will be deployed here along with
the Durkheimian notion of collective representations in order to emphasise
the ontologically creative and inarticulable dimension of the production of
social meaning.5
For Castoriadis meaning is not exhausted by the linguisticality of the
human universe. In his view, meaning comes about and refers to three forms
of human activity and interaction: perception with its eye on the empirical;
thought with its eye on the rational; and the imagination. It is imagination, or
what Castoriadis prefers to call imaginary creation that ‘cannot be accounted
for by reality, by rationality, or by the laws of symbolism’ (Castoriadis, 1987:
141). It provides the centre of interpretation and explanation, which gives the
symbolic orders of all societies their unique unified meaning. Castoriadis puts
it this way:
Sacredness, and the democratic imaginary 195
[There is] a system of imaginary significations that value or devalue, struc-
ture and hierarchise an intersecting ensemble of objects and corresponding
lacks; and it is here that one can read, more easily than elsewhere, what just
is as uncertain as it is incontestable – the orientation of a society.
(Castoriadis, 1987: 150)

Imaginary significations are the invisible glue that binds societies together
(Castoriadis, 1987: 142). In other words, according to him all societies refer to
horizons of imaginary significations from which are generated and constituted
symbolic and linguistic systems as systems. The social imaginary is the creative
centre of the social ‑ it originates new forms of imaginary significations and
produces new horizons of meaning. Moreover, because society is inconceivable
without reference to a core of imaginary significations the nature and notion of
institutions is also transformed to embrace both its functional‑institutional
complex as well its imaginary one. In this way, ‘an institution is a socially
sanctioned symbolic network in which a functional component and an imaginary
component are combined in variable proportions and relations’ (Castoriadis,
1987: 132).
If collective representations or social imaginaries are constitutive of any
given society, this means that they are historically formed, changeable and
multivarious. The inexhaustibility of meaning and the multiple and changeable
nature of collective representations or imaginary significations are the two
background concerns against which the issue of the relation between religion
and modernity can be contextualised.

Religiosity at the intersection of multiple modernities

In a discussion on the psyche and education Cornelius Castoriadis is asked by
one of the discussants:

Florence Guist-Despairie: [C]ouldn’t the fact that growing numbers of

people look to spiritual experience be seen as a protest against an
increasingly atomised, fragmented, unbearable world?
C.C: I definitely think so. What has been abusively, exaggeratedly
called the revival of religion is of that order, but so is the [popular] Zenith
music hall … These are all things on which to lean, through which to
return to a sublation that seems to achieve a total meaning and at the
same time precedes any articulated meaning.
(Castoriadis, 2007: 170)

Two lines of thought emerge from Castoriadis’s comment that can be taken
up and developed in order to respond to a putative crisis of religiosity in
modernity. On the one hand, Castoriadis’s response of religiosity as a symptom
of a crisis of meaning opens onto the direction explored above by way of
Durkheim’s work as well as his own, that is, the ontological formation of
196 In search of transcendence
meaning. For Castoriadis, religion is viewed as only one dimension, one horizon
or social imaginary through which meaning may be constructed, interpreted
and conveyed. On the other hand, for Castoriadis, this crisis of meaning
cannot be responded to in religious terms.6 Rather, Castoriadis is making a
critique of modernity in which religiosity is symptomatic of a crisis of meaning
within modernity, and a crisis of meaning per se. However, from a different
and more lateral view this double problem could be viewed as one of
encounters and intersections between modernity, religiosity and the forms of
meaning creation, rather than thinking of it in terms of a crisis.
Let us open up this second line of thought regarding meaning and crisis
before returning to the first. The idea of the crisis of religion stems from the
classical sociological division between pre-modern religious traditional societies
and modern secular ones. In conventional or classically inspired sociological
theories, modernisation and secularisation includes industrialisation, capitalisa-
tion and economic growth, urbanisation, secularity (the separation of church
and state), the rise of science and technology, and bureaucratisation. In addition,
this definition, inherited as much from Ferdinand Tönnies and Max Weber as
Durkheim, is stabilised around a ‘great’ divide between religious belief, which
is viewed as being synonymous with meaning per se, and non-religious secular
forms of thought and patterns of purposively or instrumentally rationalised
action that are disenchanted or de-magnified and less than meaningful.
Secularisation becomes a stand-in category for modernisation more generally,
thus forging a synonymous relation between the two terms (Weber, 1960; 1970:
323–359; 1971: 13–31; Turner, 2006: 437–455). Modernisation and secularisation
are conceptualised in terms of a linear historical movement from the pre-modern
religious world(s) of transcendence to the modern secular age.
However, this assumption of a ‘great divide’ between the religious and
secular ages has been viewed as controversial or even false on both theoretical
and empirical grounds. In the context of contemporary social formations the
situation looks quite different. In his critique of the secularisation thesis, Peter
L. Berger for example argues a strong counterposition – that the modern
world did not lead to a decline in religious belief or practice. In his terms,

[M]odernisation has had some secularising effects, more in some places

than in others. But it also provoked powerful movements of counter-
secularisation … Certain religious institutions have lost power and influence
in many societies, but both old and new religious beliefs and practices
have nevertheless continued in the lives of individuals, sometimes taking
new institutional forms and sometimes leading to great explosions of
religious fervour.
(Berger, 1999: 3)7

Berger argues moreover that historically, secularisation has been the exception
rather than the rule, with respect to both the empirical and theoretical topo-
graphies and narratives of modernity. There are two exceptions, for him. One
Sacredness, and the democratic imaginary 197
is Western Europe with its ‘massive secular Euro-culture’, which for example
has resulted in declining church attendance, and more importantly a decline
in ‘the adherence of church directed codes for personal behaviour (especially
with regard to sexuality, reproduction, and marriage)’. The other exception is
the growth of an international subculture of people who have been educated
in the manner of Western higher education, especially in the humanities and
social sciences, and who are bearers of the beliefs and values of the Enlight-
enment (Berger, 1999: 9–10). Berger’s analysis can be put slightly differently in
that two different trends are being noted, and these trends are the extension of
particular versions of secularisation, especially in terms of secular education,
as well as the continuity and reinterpretation of religious forms in many
societies, which it has been argued are responding to globalised modernity.
However, Berger’s point is that these religious forms are not merely responsive.
They are constitutive of the articulation of social groups and societies, whether
they take the form of continuity, disputes or ‘revivals’, for example within
Islam, Catholic or Protestant Christianity, or Buddhism, within or across
particular national settings in the Middle East and Persian Gulf, South Asia,
the Americas, South East Asia or the Pacific.8
Notwithstanding these continuous and ‘new’ social formations, there is,
nonetheless, also a presupposition by way of the secularisation thesis that
modernity not only disenchants but also empties and shallows out meaning.
This presupposition assumes that it is only religion that can address and
maintain depth of meaning, and this position has been articulated strongly by
Thomas Luckmann, as well as Charles Taylor, at least in his recent work
(Luckmann, 2003: 275–285; Berger and Luckmann, 1995; Taylor, 2007). Luck-
mann makes a claim for the special dimension of social life that Durkheim
reserves for the term ‘the sacred’. For Luckmann, though, this term is, and
can only be synonymous with religion. For him, religion is an ‘ontological
fact’ of human existence.
Moreover, for Luckmann we can only acquire our moral universe from
a religious framework. For him, they go hand in hand. Because of this
connection, for him

religion is not a passing phase in the evolution of mankind but a universal

aspect of the condition humana … [It] remains a constitutive element of
human life, bonding the individual human being, most particularly its
experiences of transcendence, to a collective view of the good life.
(Luckmann, 2003: 276)

While everyday life shapes and limits experience, sacredness, for Luckmann is
encountered, in a way similar to Durkheim’s account, beyond it, and, not-
withstanding the way this encounter is socially structured, it is for him the
penultimate source of meaning and morality.
While not drawing on Luckmann’s work, Taylor makes a similar argument
that further stratifies the relation between the sacred‒religious and the
198 In search of transcendence
modern world, which for him can also only be profane, notwithstanding a
Romantic countercurrent. As we shall see in a more detailed way in Chapter 13,
Taylor posits two contrasting images of selfhood to underpin his critique of
modernity: a non-modern porous self, and a modern buffered one. The porous
self is contextualised and constituted by a porosity between the mundane and
enchanted worlds, while the buffered self establishes boundary conditions that
limit the self. Taylor interprets these two worlds on the basis of the supremacy
and sovereignty of the enchanted one with its cosmology, vertical and eternal
sense of time, theogeny and miracles. This enchanted world is an exceptional
and transcendent one, which the human world finds ultimately indeterminate,
mysterious and unknowable, even though there is a porous relation between
the two (Taylor, 2007).9
Religion becomes the stand-in category for meaning, depth, morality, value,
and the subjective experience of transcendence. It becomes an anthropological
projection of the indeterminate nature of the human condition, one that may
be ultimately unfathomable and uncontrollable. This anthropological projection,
though, makes religion an umbrella concept under which is gathered not only
the so-called ‘limit’ experiences that occur on the edge of experience and
perception, such as violence, suffering, mortality, and the expected or unex-
pected death of loved ones, but also those experiences that break through
perception, often dissolving it and making the world inexplicable.
In other words, one can view the issue of religion, generally, in contemporary
modernity as a stand-in category that addresses both the problem of meaning
and the uncertain contingency of the human condition, and a set of problems
that are related to specialisation, differentiation, and complexity. Together,
these two problem complexes of meaning and modernity appear as if there
are ongoing crises on both fronts. However, it may be more illuminating to speak
of intersections between the formation of new interpretations of religiosity in the
context of the complexity of modernity and the complexity of meaning forma-
tion itself. Put this way, and in the light of the discussions of Durkheim’s and
Castoriadis’s works above, the relation between religion and modernity is not
so much suggestive of historical linearity but of intersections and encounters
between multiple modernities and religions, and thus multiple ‘sacreds’ or
social imaginaries.
These intersections and encounters could be termed, following the work of
Arnason, ‘inter-civilizational ones’, in which the notion of civilisation can be
deployed in order to open up the diversity of religious imaginaries, their long
historical development and reach, as well as their geographical breadth. As
Arnason states inter-civilisational encounters should not be viewed as either
symmetrical or ‘dialogic’. Rather, for him,

they tend to be asymmetric in the sense that neither initiatives nor effects
are evenly distributed … They can, but not always do, involve high levels
of violence and destruction – there is definitely no reason to invest the
concept of intercivilizational encounters with the romantic aura that
Sacredness, and the democratic imaginary 199
tends to accompany the notion of ‘a dialogue between civilisations’. On
the other hand they can be productive, in the sense of giving rise to new
socio-cultural patterns and opening up new historical horizons, and there
is no obvious pattern of direct or indirect relations between the productive
and destructive aspects.10

To put it slightly differently, a civilisational encounter is a moment, even a

historically long one, in which power and cultural resources and interpreta-
tions are mobilised in ways where both spatial and symbolic or interpretative
boundaries become porous, are opened and are often remade (see Chapter 9).
The results of these intersections and encounters have been combinations of
the long histories of regions and cultures, the specificity of modernising
impulses, and conflicts at junctures of both of these forces, the focal point of
which are the social imaginaries and their world pictures and programmes.
S.N. Eisenstadt, for one, argues that the best way to understand these inter-
civilisational encounters, which include the history of modernity, is to see
these as stories

of continual constitution and reconstitution of a multiplicity of cultural

programs. These on-going reconstructions of a multiple institutional and
ideological pattern are carried forward by specific social actors in close
connection with social, political and intellectual activists, and also by
social movements pursuing different programs of modernity, holding very
different views on what makes societies modern.
(Eisenstadt, 2003: 536, 2004: 48–66)11

For Eisenstadt, modernity, too, is a civilisation. However, because of the

multiplicity of modern forms, its dynamism and ‘unevenness’ it might be
better to conceive it as constituted by open indeterminate forms in the context
of inter-civilisational encounters.
However, the notion of multiple modernities is not merely a regional concept,
that is, of building geographical and social specificity into the idea of modernity
itself. It is also a concept that pluralises the notion and experience of modernity
into a series of competing dimensions that are irreducible to one another even
though they may intersect. These multiple forms of modernity include the
long histories of globalised markets, nation states and interstate environments,
democratisation and public opinion, industrialisation and the reorganisation
of work, and expressivist aesthetics, each of which swings between creations
and interpretations of control and creations and interpretations of autono-
misation. In other words, multiple modernities is both a regional concept and
one that multidimensionalises the concept of modernity itself. One can speak
of multiple modernities in the context of inter-civilisational encounters, the
result of which are coexistences and shared social spaces.
The notion of multiple modernities creates perspectives both in terms of its
geographies and the ways in which its features are conceptually mobilised and
200 In search of transcendence
prioritised. The intersections and the tensions that are so created entail that the
appropriation of modern institutional patterns, ways of thinking and acting and
the human self-images, that is, of the modern ‘sacreds’ or social imaginaries
that constitute these – for example, of being rational, free, a national, a capitalist,
a democrat or an étatist – has neither been immediate nor straightforward.
For example, a particular juncture for these competing modernities and religious
imaginaries has often been the continuing (re-)formation of nations against a
civilisational backdrop in which wars of independence give way to often violently
articulated competing claims. These claims include participating in, shaping
or contesting their particular cultural and organisational models of modernity,
including the secular or religious adherence that is being pursued by the pre-
dominant elite, and hence the relation between religiosity and the nation state.
It becomes an open question as to whether or not democracy is within the
vocabulary of many of these participants, and within the orbit of the conflicts
in which they are embroiled.12
In other words and as has been seen in Chapter 11, a continuous selection,
reinterpretation, and reformulation of these imaginaries, including religious
ones, has and continues to occur which has given rise to new political and
institutional arrangements and cultural programmes that have their own
antinomies and tensions, in which conceptions of collective identity, including
negative and positive conceptions of others are constantly reconstructed in
both religious and ‘secular’, or more properly multiple modern terms. This
also entails that the singular points of reference that purportedly gave meaning
its depth and morality its voice are also pluralised. If the depth of meaning is
not synonymous with religion or transcendence (Taylor) per se, then the issue
becomes the pluralisation of its possible sites, and not the absence or vacuity
of meaning itself.

Multiple modernities and the democratic imaginary:

Religion as a stand-in category
In the wake of controversies and observations put forward by such writers as
Berger, Luckmann and Taylor it has been argued that the current situation
has been termed a post-secular one, rather than one simply of crisis. However,
in the light of the above remarks, one can speak of intersections between the
continuity of religious forms of belief, the formation of new interpretations of
religiosity, the complexity of modernity and the complexity of meaning forma-
tion. In other words, it may be analytically more helpful to speak of civilisa-
tional encounters and multiple modernities than the post-secular condition.
It is in this context that religion, again, becomes a stand-in category that
denotes an intersection where modernities and religiosity meet. It is here that
social actors, who may be either religious or secular, forge and navigate an
increasingly complex environment that includes multi-faith and multicultural
politics, transnational demois and nation states in an age of uncertainty and
contingent open-endedness. These complex environments might be described
Sacredness, and the democratic imaginary 201
as ‘new world’ societies for which ‘old’ Europe is no longer the template. The
‘new world’ societies include the Americas, Australia and contemporary Europe,
as well as societies of the Middle East, including Israel, notwithstanding
profound differences between them.13
It is here that Habermas’s essays on religious tolerance helps to throw the
problem of navigation into relief. Habermas, to be sure from his strong inter-
pretive position of communicative action, shows how ‘new world’ societies could
function democratically in the context of opposing points of view, cultural
programmes and social imaginaries or sacreds (to use a language other than
Habermas’s). For Habermas, religion is a stand-in category for thinking
through the relation between democratic politics and a constitutional patriotism
to it and difference or multicultural contexts and experiences. It is not
Habermas’s more positive point of view that is of interest here. Rather it is the
way that he discusses religious pluralism from the vantage point of the mutual
recognition of their competing ‘styles of life’, and the way in which this
potentially agonistic situation opens onto the complexity of modernity – a
complexity that should be modulated and mediated by modernity’s democratic
impulse rather than its darker tones.14 While this is not surprising given
Habermas’s ‘philosophical discourse of modernity’, what is interesting about
his later interventions in Between Naturalism and Religion and Religion and
Rationality is that religion begins to emerge as a stand-in category for the
dual issues of political will formation and meaning formation.
In his more recent work Habermas argues that a new double-sided learning
process should occur on the side of the so-called secular constitutional
democratic state and those religious communities who belong to it. He begins
from the social and historical ‘facts’ of cultural or civilisational pluralism. For
Habermas, a culture (or civilisation)

furnishes those who grow up in it [with] not only the elementary linguistic,
practical and cognitive capacities, but also the grammatically prestructured
worldviews and semantically accumulated stores of knowledge … [T]radi-
tions preserve their vitality by insinuating themselves into the ramified and
interlinked channels of individual life histories and, in the process, passing
the critical threshold of the autonomous endorsement of every single
potential participant … The test of the vitality of a cultural tradition
ultimately lies in the fact that challenges can be transformed into solvable
problems for those who grow up within this tradition.
(Habermas, 2008: 302)

In other words, a culture provides depth and robustness, and can either be
relatively closed or relatively open.
For Habermas, the contemporary challenge for religiously constituted cultures
or civilisations is to learn one of modernity’s own multiplicities – its demo-
cratic one. This is especially the case for those religions that stand outside the
long history of the formation of European states and polities in which
202 In search of transcendence
religious conflict, and its resolution through a language of ‘tolerance’ became
one of its cultural learning processes. In other words, Habermas’s implicit use of
religion as a stand-in category contains a significant insight. The debate about
religion is not about religion or even secularisation as such, but about the
democratisation of religious horizons and ‘multicultural’ coexistences
(Habermas, 2008: 138).15
According to Habermas, because of the legacy of its own religious wars
European democratic modernity has an already pre-existing burden of tolerance
that should continue to be learnt, relearnt or opened to new horizons and
understandings in both European and non-European ‘new world’ societies.
The contemporary situation is a case in point, where, as he states,

the inclusion of religious minorities in the political community awakens

and promotes the sensitivity to the claims of other groups that suffer
discrimination … From the perspective of equal inclusion all citizens …
religious discrimination takes place in the long list of cultural, linguistic,
ethnic and racial, sexual and physical discrimination.
(Habermas, 2008: 267)

Habermas goes onto argue that the inclusivist dynamic that underlies toler-
ance occurs along two paths – one concerned with distributive justice and
the other with full membership of the national‒political state as a political
sovereign within it. Although these paths have been practised and applied
individualistically Habermas argues that this can be extended to encompass
group or cultural rights. Because, for him, cultures have a robustness and
depth, the notion of individual right can be extended to the cultural group
so that access by individuals ‘to the contents of experience, communication,
and recognition in which people can articulate their self-understanding and
develop and maintain identities’ is guaranteed (Habermas, 2008: 269). For
Habermas group rights are the current litmus test and pacesetter for the
modern democratic state, along with civil disobedience. Moreover, and
importantly for Habermas, group rights ensure that ‘the polyphonic com-
plexity of public voices’ in the public sphere is not reduced (Habermas,
2008: 131).
The burden of tolerance is in this context shared between the religious
group and ‘secular new world’ civil societies and their democratic constitutional
states. On the one side, according to Habermas, groups that suffer discrimina-
tion do not ‘benefit from a morality of equal rights on inclusion without
making this morality their own in turn’ (Habermas, 2008: 269). From the
other side, the burden of tolerance also ‘demands that “strong” secular com-
munities should establish cognitive links between their internal ethos and the
morality of human rights that prevails in their social and political environments’
(Habermas, 2008: 270).16 In this way, Habermas implicitly proposes a type of
quasi-corporatist integrationist model so favoured by Durkheim in his own
solution to the crisis of modernity, and more recently practised by many ‘new
Sacredness, and the democratic imaginary 203
world’ societies such as Australia and Canada, especially in the areas of
multiculturalism (Rundell, 2004b).
Yet, for Habermas, this integrationist model requires a ‘ground’ upon
which it can rest. In his critical discussion of Rawl’s proposal that the cognitive
burden for tolerance and social inclusion falls upon religious believers‒citizens
themselves to subsume their belief to the liberal constitutional state, Habermas’s
argument goes in two different directions – one towards his theory of learning
processes, and another towards an idea reminiscent of Durkheim’s notion of
collective representations. From one side, the liberal state should be agnostic
and ‘must not transform the necessary institutional separation between religion
and politics into an unreasonable mental and psychological burden for its
religious citizens’ (Habermas, 2008: 130). This burden is lightened, so to speak,
‘when there is a shared and uniting bond between believers and secularists of a
legally unenforceable civic solidarity’ (Habermas 2008: 135). This means that,
as Habermas notes, there is a more-than-cognitive dimension. In other words,
conflicts among religious groups, and between them and secularists cannot be
solved cognitively. They require a hermeneutic self-reflection, which for
Habermas involves a reflection ‘concerning the normative premises of the
constitutional state and of a democratic civic ethos’ (Habermas, 2008: 139).
For Habermas, this hermeneutic self-reflection is the result of learning
processes in which norms become open to discursive and argumentative reason-
ing about their universalisable validity. This insight regarding mutual learning
processes can only be developed from his dual vantage point of evolutionary
learning processes and his post-metaphysically posited, yet quasi-transcendental
claims to normative validity. According to Habermas, the learning processes
themselves are tied to what he has termed, following his own reconstruction
of Durkheim’s work, ‘the linguistification of the sacred’, that is, the internal
differentiation of cultures into claims for truth, normative rightness or
authenticity. And it is this internal differentiation that is the operative condi-
tion that informs his idea of the double warrant. Religious social actors
should be able to undertake a ‘double transcendence’ – one towards an
otherworldly form of belief, and another towards the claims to normativity
that are imbedded in the speech acts themselves.
For Habermas, speech act theory or universal pragmatics also solves the
problem of the constitution of meaning – meaning is intersubjectively con-
stituted through speech acts, and is neither grounded in cultures or traditions
in Gadamer’s sense, nor ontically concealed (Heidegger), nor deferred in
‘playful’ slippages (Derrida). Habermas makes a counterfactual distinction
between irrationality and rationality. According to Habermas, we do not
decide to be rational beings – we are rational beings. Habermas attempts to
reclaim the Enlightenment’s claim to reason by locating it within speech acts,
which by their very nature contain the validity claims of truth, legitimacy or
truthfulness that become exposed through argumentation. Habermas moves
the democratic imperative of modernity to the intersubjective‒linguistic con-
stitution of the species in order to establish a post-metaphysical reflective
204 In search of transcendence
foundationalism. As such, we are not simply linguistic animals, but argumenta-
tive ones, for it is through argument that the rightness of a norm is questioned.
Consensus, at this level, means for Habermas, at least in the context of political
modernity, that there is an implicit agreement to argue, deliberate and
understand. This implicit agreement to argue and to understand is imbedded
in the law or collective representation of the modern constitutional state as a
democratic deliberative proceduralism (Habermas, 1997a). Distorted commu-
nication occurs when argument does not occur, and is replaced, for example
with violence.
However, one needs to step outside the framework of learning processes
and the theory of communicative action to develop Habermas’s insight in a more
open-ended dynamic and indeterminate way that does not presuppose progress
or decline. Habermas thinks that ‘inter-civilizational’ encounters, which
include judgements from both sides, are resolved through learning processes
and universal pragmatics. However, there is a moment of disquiet for Habermas,
even in this strong post-metaphysical position, which could lead in a different
direction. This disquiet refers neither to the problem of pseudo-corporatist
integration, not to the learning processes themselves. Rather, it belongs to the
issue of the limits of both the learning processes and ‘new world’ democratic
constitutional states. Habermas admits that it remains an open question
whether the relation between faith and democratic will formation can be
pursued through epistemic means or argumentation (Habermas, 2008: 144–145).
Perhaps this issue is neither epistemic nor normative‒argumentative, but
ontological in the Durkheimian sense. Perhaps it refers to the shared bond
between believers and non-believers that, as Habermas himself has noted, is
ultimately legally unenforceable. If it is unenforceable, then this relation and
its social power originate elsewhere, apart from language use and learning
processes. This leaves open the suggestion that openness to learning is based
on a prior value or imaginary, and that the arguments that this evinces are of
a second order.
Agnes Heller, for one, acknowledges the complexity of the modern world
and works with a differentiated model. Where Habermas places the public
sphere at the centre of his model, which is the result of his theory of commu-
nicative rationality, Heller does not equate democratisation with an increase
in argumentation. To be sure, Heller’s project is located in the same arena as
Habermas’s, and yet she is especially critical of his theory of communicative
rationality. Heller argues instead that people do not move to reflexive action
through argumentation. Rather they are motivated to argue from a prior
condition. Crucially for her the agreement to argue originates from a prior and
concealed value. It is not built-in, so to speak. Rather, according to Heller, the
right to argue is something that has to be argued for, to convince others of, on
the basis of a value perspective. It is here that Heller’s argument has an affinity
with the Durkheimian one outlined above. Values function homologously in the
same way that collective representations do for Durkheim, or social imaginaries
do for Castoriadis, notwithstanding the differences between these three
Sacredness, and the democratic imaginary 205
thinkers – they are an ‘invisible cement’. Values provide the bridge between
the inner world of desires, interests and hopes, and the social world including the
socially located activity of critical evaluation and judgement. They provide
the focus around the inner and outer life of the subject, and thus social
action. For her, there is no ‘great divide’ between reason and emotion, the
profane and the transcendental (Heller, 1991: 463).17
Modern reflexive culture is dynamic in the sense that, for Heller, not only
can everyday life be evaluated, but also the values themselves – they are no
longer ultimate. To be sure, different values are historically created and
interpreted and have become imbedded in modern culture. However, for her
this does not mean that they become relative. Some become universalisable
and universalising points of orientation, and as such become the points of
orientation from which one critiques other values and patterns of action.
As already indicated in Chapter 9, the universalisable and universalising
modern value, according to Heller, is freedom. However, this freedom is
paradoxical in that it is the ground of modernity that, itself, cannot be grounded.
As she states, ‘the moderns are sitting on a paradox. This is the constellation of
the modern world: it is grounded by a principle that, in principle, does not
ground anything; it is founded on a universal value or idea, which in principle
negates foundation’ (Heller, 1999: 15, emphasis in the original). It is also
empty in the sense that it is created through its very actions and interpretations.
What is unique about the modern condition are the arguments about its meaning
and its reference points, but arguments that once gave the appearance of
metaphysical certainty, an appearance that has been abandoned. It is a freedom
without illusions of grandeur, of redemption, of the restoration of lost hopes
and dreams. In this sense, for her, it is not only post-foundational, but also
post-utopic. Nonetheless, this ‘empty’ concept of freedom did not come out
of nowhere. According to her, freedom functions as a shared cultural arche
for the self-understanding of moderns. Because of its function as a central
cultural concept or social imaginary, Heller argues that the narrative of freedom,
or the myths, stories and fictions that it embodies also has a long history that
predates modernity, even as we as moderns reinterpret these and create new
stories of freedom for ourselves (Heller, 2011: 129–140).18
Because freedom is a groundless value or social imaginary, it co-constitutes
the different and competing modern fields and inter-civilisational encounters
as one of their possible interpretations. For example, modernity and religion
might meet in the play of historical contingency, and thus in the competition
and dissonance of values or imaginaries, one of which is freedom (Heller,
1999: 14, 54–55).
The value or imaginary of freedom interpreted from the perspective of
politics almost presumes intersubjectivity, but does not build this is an
anthropological constituent. For Heller, politics could almost be seen as an
empty space, in a similar way to Lefort’s description of the political. In Lefort’s
view, and following de Tocqueville’s lead, democracy presumes not individu-
alism, but interdependence, and it is this interdependence that provides a limit
206 In search of transcendence
to the conduct of others, or more properly, in Lefort’s terms, enables conduct
to remain political (Heller, 1999: 54–55; Lefort, 1988: 9–20).19 In this sense,
for Lefort, democracy or the political ‒ and for him they are coterminus ‒ is
open and empty: it is an open-ended form of society, open to the circulation
of power, the creation of forms of association and the making of politics, and
open to forms of interpretation, all of which give it substance.
For Heller, and notwithstanding an initial asymmetricality of encounters,
including civilisational and cultural ones, the political space should be trans-
posed as recognition of the other qua other, or as a dynamic of symmetrical
reciprocity on the basis of the circulation of the imaginary of freedom. It is
here that freedom becomes an intersubjectively orientated concept and style
of action, rather than one that is particularistic or ego-centred. Symmetrical
reciprocity is constituted through the recognition of the person qua person,
that is, men and women who ‘recognise each other’s autonomy and have
respect for each other’s personality’ (Heller, 1990: 67). Symmetrical reciprocity
assumes not only recognition, but also a relationship and reciprocity. As Heller
notes a relationship of symmetrical reciprocity only occurs when each party
gives and receives. It does not occur when one party gives and the other does
not receive. In addition, there is no reciprocity when only one party gives and
the other only receives, even though there may be a relationship (Heller, 1990: 53).
Symmetrical reciprocity, along with argumentation, is, thus, a particular form
of intersubjectivity – a second order one – through which both secular and
religious social actors comport their relations with one another as mutual
movements back and forth (Heller, 1990: 56).
Modernity is ecumenical or heterodox, which means that it was constitutively
plural or multidimensional, even in the face of power and domination. In the
face of this multidimensionality there is a burden, but it is the burden of value
responsibility. Modernity, in fact, generates a double paradox for this
burden – freedom is an imaginary that cannot provide a foundation, which
itself produces another paradox, the irresolvability of inevitable clashes of
cultures, religions and civilisations that cannot be removed. Nor can it simply
be managed. However, for Heller,

in practice … every culture makes a decisive choice. This is just as much

of a leap as are many of our other choices … The decision that one normally
makes – that is, the leap – is not theoretically founded but contextual. In any
given context, where the paradox appears and choice (in action and
judgment) is unavoidable, one chooses either the one statement of the para-
dox or the other as the foundation of one’s decision. This is not a logical but
an ethico-political choice in each case. And this means that the man or
the woman who so chooses is taking responsibility for his or her choice.
(Heller, 1999: 140, 17–172)

A person or a culture can leap out of the hermeneutical circle of freedom, or

remain within it and accept the limit that is implied within the political notion
Sacredness, and the democratic imaginary 207
of freedom, that is, the circulation of interpretations, power and symmetrical
If symmetrical reciprocity and argumentation are not a possibility, disen-
tanglement and depoliticisation is an option. Mutual indifference and a self-
conscious lack of reciprocity is a Stoic option rather than mere tolerance.
Mutual indifference may be viewed here as keeping open the circle of possible
understandings and interpretations, of keeping the possible discussions alive
for another time. The issue of burden becomes an existential issue of living
‘well’ towards oneself and others in the context of the intersections of modernity,
the tensions that these create, and the burden of ethical responsibility that is
required to form a life lived more or less without causing damage.

1 This chapter is dedicated to the memory of Peter Losonczi.
2 In Durkheim’s mature, 1914 position of the homo duplex, the exploration of the
primordial conflict that it represents is both subtle and complex. He argues that
this dualism has been expressed, in an intellectual register, by Pascal in his famous
formulation that ‘“man is both angel and beast” and not exclusively one or the
other’ (Durkheim, 1960: 329). Moreover, this dualism entails a constant inner
restlessness and disharmony that produces both misery and grandeur. Culturally,
Durkheim argues, this dualism has been most articulately expressed in the great
religions – principally Judaism and Christianity, for him, although all of the religions
of the so-called Axial Age could be included here – Buddhism, Shintoism, Islam
and Confucianism, in as much as the latter can be thought of as a religion. These
great axial religions have insisted on this contradiction and the struggles that it
gives rise to. ‘These continue to depict us as tormented and suffering, while only
the crude cults of inferior societies breathe forth and inspire a joyful confidence’
(Durkheim, 1960: 331–332). It should be noted though that Durkheim does not
limit his discussion of the anthropological dimension of the homo duplex to these
Axial religions alone. The homo duplex belongs as much to so-called primitive
religions as it does to the modern ones of democracy and nationalism.
3 Durkheim reiterates his argument already posited in The Division of Labour in
Society that morality is a basic dimension of collective life, and that the individual
only becomes moral by being a member of a group (Durkheim, 1953: 37). As
Durkheim’s discussion of mana in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life makes
clear, while social‒moral life may have a sanction that can be wielded physically,
its force lies in an authority that transcends its physical presence. Coercion, fear
and violence, although important aspects of collective representations, especially of
the ‘mechanical’ type, are nonetheless secondary to a moral power that requires not so
much an emotional economy of fear, but more so one in which obligation, respect and
exaltation are operative. These dimensions give a collective representation – as social‒
moral authority – substance and longevity (Durkheim, 1976: 206–223). In this,
and unlike intellectual collective representations, they are beyond ‘deliberation or
calculation’ (Durkheim, 1976: 207). When taken together – that is, as both intellectual
and moral forces – collective representations dominate and constitute the totality of
the sacred world that humans inhabit, and are opened by.
4 This distinction need not be accepted. Rather, as will be explored below, the sacred
collective representations, or what can be termed social imaginaries, following
Castoriadis’s work, are not necessarily separate from everyday life in the institutional
sense. We can articulate and practise social imaginaries in any setting.
208 In search of transcendence
5 See Castoriadis, 1987. Castoriadis also terms this concealed constitutive internality
‘the immanent unperceivable’. ‘The immanent unperceivable’ is an ideality, which
indicates that the signification is not rigidly attached to a material support, but that
it goes beyond it without ever being able to do without it. It is this dimension of the
immanent unperceived or social imaginary significations that create language and
institutions, and which the social human being cannot do without. See Castoriadis,
1997c: 3–18; Rundell, 1989.
6 This is because Castoriadis makes a categorial distinction within his own social
ontology between heteronomy and autonomy. Notwithstanding Castoriadis’s pro-
blematic distinction his formulation of social imaginaries provides an alternative
path to Habermas’s reading of modernity to the one laid down in A Theory of
Communicative Action, where he also discusses Durkheim’s work from a position
of what he terms the ‘de-linguistification of the sacred’. I have discussed Habermas’s
reading of Durkheim as well as Castoriadis’s work in Rundell, 1989: 5–24; see also,
Arnason, 1989: 25–45.
7 See also Luckmann, 1983: 124–132; Voye, 1999: 275–288; Lambert, 1999: 303–333;
Tiryakian, 1992: 78–94.
8 See also Turner, 2006: 437–455; Voye, 1999: 275–288; Lambert, 1999: 303–333;
Hefner 1998: 83–104, 2001: 491–514.
9 I discuss Taylor’s work in Chapter 13. See also Habermas’s critique of the priority
of religiously conceived transcendence, which can also be read as an implicit critique
of Taylor’s position, in Habermas, 1992: 67–94.
10 Arnason, 2006: 44. Arnason’s work now emphasises the long term as the lens
through which modernity is viewed, the result of which is a renewed objectivism to
his concept of civilisation. It should be noted here that I am not equating civilisations
with religions even though what are taken as ‘civilisations’ often have a central
religious dimension through which they can be defined. Religion does not exhaust
what a civilisation is, even in its more objectivistic definitions. Rather, this perspective
of intersections between civilisations and modernities is typified by contemporary
work that deploys images of tension between conflict and integration within moder-
nity itself, between all of its different dimensions, and between these dimensions and
the civilisational backdrops against which modernities can develop. In this way,
credence is given to the specific characteristics of regional and civilisational identities
and geographies, and the way in which tensions and conflicts are constitutive of these.
In this way, too, civilisation becomes an umbrella concept for the coalescence of
cultural forms, or in Durkheimian‒Castoriadian terms, rich complexes of meaning,
as well as forms of power that mark the particularities of boundary formation. See
Arnason, 2002a, 2002b, 2003: 323–359; Eisenstadt, 2003: Chaps 20–23. For a more
recent articulation of Arnason’s positions see Arnason, 2010a: 5–13, 2010b: 67–82.
11 See Heller, 1999 for an alternative way of theorising the plurality of the modern
12 Kaya, 2004a, 2004b: 35–57; Norton, 1995; Roniger and Waisman, 2002; Tuğal,
1999: 83–98, 2002: 85–111.
13 Habermas takes up the notion of the ‘post-secular’ to also describe those societies
that are or were secular, and this context also experiences a vibrancy of religious
communities. Apart from the essays mentioned he also critically discusses this term
in ‘Notes on a post-secular society’ in sightandsound.com (http://sightandsound.com/
features (accessed 18 July 2008)). Multiculturalism can also be viewed as a stand-in
category for intersections between national, democratic, and particular identities.
For the complexity of ‘new world’ societies see Ben-Rafael and Sternberg, 2005,
especially the essays by Danièle Hervieu-Léger and Eliezer Ben-Rafael; Norton,
1995; Bohman, 2007.
14 In this context, fundamentalism will be viewed as a separate and different issue,
one that is ultimately a non-religious response to modernity, a response that is a
Sacredness, and the democratic imaginary 209
totalising redemptive reduction of complexity and contingency. Fundamentalist
movements or anti-movements (Wieviorka) are movements ultimately about the
direction and cultural model of their respective nation states of origins, irrespective
of their geographical locations-in-exile and their civilisational fantasises (Wieviorka,
1988). In an important analysis, Fehér argues that modern redemptive politics is
born at the end of the eighteenth century, and is first personified by Napoleon.
According to Fehér the main features of the redemptive paradigm are, first, an over-
reduction in the inherent complexity of modernity, which attempts to dissolve the
inevitable conflicts and tensions between subsystems, and that this dissolution also
comes through or is directed through a single medium – the irrational authority of the
redeemer, who claims the highest form of rationality which cannot be questioned.
Second, a homogenisation of the plurality of groups, classes and organisations of
civil society accompanies this reduction of complexity. Political pluralism is subject
to a homogenising political state. In the context of the above two dynamics, Fehér
goes on to argue that, third, no set of predictable institutions can emerge as these
are reduced to the personality and strategy of the redeemer. Hence, they vary from
redeemer to redeemer. The redemptive paradigm not only homogenises the relation
between society and the state. It is also, Fehér continues, a substitute for tradi-
tional religious cohesion in the domains of society and culture, which have been
incompletely uncoupled from religious forms of meaning, and hence incompletely
secularised. This is especially in the context of the inability of modern scientific
spirit to fulfil all needs, and where democracy becomes legalistic and procedural
and cannot supply directions for ethical and moral conduct. The logic of the
redemptive paradigm is that it is the politics of ultimate ends. In more recent
political history the redemptive paradigm has been recycled in unexpected places,
for example, in Islamist fundamentalist politics where forms of potential or real
terrorism can emerge from a negative, one-dimensionalising critique of modernity
coupled with, in this case, an imputed collective representation or social imagin-
ary that needs to be saved. However, the form of terror carries the same aesthetic
load as it did with other terrorisms– it is stylised, ritualised and symbolic, and in
a way that homogenises and disregards both the complexity of the target group
that has been constructed as the enemy, and the host civilisation from which it
originated (Fehér, 1987c: 61–76).
15 See also Rath et al. (2001) for responses that address the relation between Europe,
including the UK, its Islamic citizens and non-citizens from democratic perspec-
tives that attempt to build in the plurality of ways of life in both institutional and
cultural processes.
16 It is beyond the scope of this chapter to discuss the issue of group rights.
17 Heller’s concentration on values is linked to her anthropology where she states that
‘readiness for rational argumentation … presupposes the involvement of the
human being as a whole, as a needing, wanting, feeling being’ (Heller, 1991: 463).
To be sure, argumentation is certainly about raising claims as an action; but as an
action it is also an activity that connects with and articulates needs, feelings and
values that acting subjects bring to the permanent context of intersubjectively
co-constituted social life. See also Heller, 2009, 2011: 67–80.
18 Heller also argues that life is the other universalisable value or imaginary of modernity.
The value of life can be interpreted as the right to be, to exist, and is instituted
from the vantage point of justice as it pertains to the just distribution of life
chances and the retribution of injustices against this right in both national and
international contexts. Freedom is the value beyond justice and informs it.
19 To be sure, Lefort has had a long engagement with de Tocqueville’s work in the
context of his critiques of the Jacobin paradigm. See Chapter 7 (this volume);
Lefort, 1988: 165–209, 2000: 35–66.
13 In search of transcendence: Charles
Taylor’s critique of secularisation

In A Secular Age (2007) Charles Taylor provides a masterful interpretation of
modernity. It is the culmination of an intellectual project that spans his reflec-
tions on hermeneutics, studies on Hegel and the genealogy of the modern self, a
defence of quebequois multiculturalism in the context of reflections on the
dynamics of modernity, and the problem of a transcendental dimension of the
human condition (Taylor, 1975, 1985, 1989, 2004, 2007; Taylor and Gutman,
1992). A Secular Age is an immense, and immensely troubling book, a more
or less comprehensive attempt to reconstruct modernity’s dynamics, which at
the same time lays down a gauntlet to these dynamics. In presenting his own
version of modernity, Taylor’s task is ultimately to argue against it by con-
structing a fully-fledged critique of modernity as a secular age. In the context of
his critique he also builds into his analysis new forms of devotion, ritual and
religiosity, the aim of which is to give depth to the idea and practice of modern
selfhood. The result of Taylor’s historical reconstruction gives the religious frame
of reference a complexity and endurance often denied it by some theorists of
modernity.1 And yet Taylor’s gauntlet is not one of religiosity as such, but of the
absence of what he terms transcendence, that is, another dimension of experience
that has been circumscribed by the condition of modern solipsism.
Let us look at Taylor’s analysis more closely – first his image of modernity,
and second his accompanying human self-image of what he terms the modern
buffered self against which he will posit a porous one. The porous self is his
own critical anthropology, which points beyond the specifically religious
reference point of A Secular Age to the transcendent. In a third section, I will
then look at what Taylor wants in the context of his competing images of the
buffered and porous self and his discussion of the Romantic countercurrent
and its relation to moments of transcendence.

Taylor’s social imaginaries

No doubt Taylor has the works of both Max Weber and Emile Durkheim in his
sights when he discusses the secular age, which is Taylor’s stand-in category
Charles Taylor’s critique of secularisation 211
for modernity. Taylor’s ‘list’, although not as exhaustive as some other theories
of modernity – no list could be – includes the economy, democracy, sovereignty,
and the public sphere, secularity, the rise of science and instrumental reason,
and multiculturalism, that is, the coexistence and survival of ethnic and cultural
identities (Weber, 1971: 13–31; Durkheim, 1964; Heller, 1999).2
Taylor reconstructs his modernity and its dimensions according to three
narratives or social imaginaries, a term he deploys in quite a different way
from that developed by Cornelius Castoriadis, a writer with whom this term is
also and formatively associated. Taylor’s version of a social imaginary makes it
a background cultural hermeneutic. It is less a field of ontological imaginary
creation (Castoriadis), and more an unspoken, inarticulate, untheorised and
ultimately untheorisable background that gives an understanding to a whole
situation within which the particular parts of it can make sense, and without
which these parts can only ever be not so much incompletely, but more so
incoherently explained (Taylor, 2007: 173). Taylor also terms this untheorised
background understanding an ‘implicit map’ of social space or sociality that
determines the style and forms of power inherent in social interactions.
The three ‘implicit maps’ or social imaginaries that Taylor posits as the
core constituting ones that make up its moral social space and emotional life are
the economy, the public sphere, and the practices and outlooks of democratic
self-rule. According to Taylor, the latter two have devolved into the dynamics
of sovereignty and governmentality. There is also a fourth one, that of
Romanticism, which he presents as a counterpoint to modernity. Taylor’s aim
is not to give one of the imaginaries the capacity to determine the other ones
in the manner of paleo-Marxism, but to configure each in its own terms. In other
words, he accepts that modernity is internally differentiating. It produces
different spaces, and these spaces are understood as social imaginaries.
For Taylor, economic space is not defined simply according to economic or
monetary exchange, the organisation of labour, or the development of techno-
logies or industries. Rather, it refers to the older version of civil society as
‘politisse’, ‘police’ or ‘civilisation’ (Ferguson, 1995). Exchange is, thus, not
simply a monetary form, it is a ‘style of life’ (Simmel, 1971a, 1978) and a form of
knowledge that individuates and, importantly for Taylor, one-dimensionalises
human experience around the idea of self-interest in which the older moral or
virtue economy, which includes passion, greatness, as well as an ideal of the
political good, is undermined, broken up, dismantled or simply becomes vapid.
The eighteenth-century distinction between civilisation and corruption dissolves
and is replaced by this ‘economy’ of exchanges of self-interest, which becomes
the science of society and given a privileged status by its practitioners, theo-
reticians and critics in the very act of its differentiation from other areas of
social life (Taylor, 2007: 184–185).
The public sphere is a different imaginary altogether from the economic
one. In Taylor’s formulation it is the creation of a new, unprecedented plurality
of spaces of strangers whose only concern is discussion – another form of
exchange – in which media in the form of letters, the press, radio, television,
212 In search of transcendence
internet blogs, become the form of interconnection of mutual benefit and
sociability. Similar to exchange constituted in the economic imaginary, being
familiar is no longer a requirement. This experience of distanced unfamiliarity
makes this modern public sphere different from what Taylor terms

topical common space … in which people are assembled for some purpose,
be it on an intimate level for conversation, or a larger more ‘public’ scale
for a deliberative assembly, or a ritual, or a celebration, or an enjoyment
of a football match, or an opera or the like.
(Taylor, 2007: 187)

However, the public sphere constituted by ‘the sociability of strangers’ (Taylor

2007: 186‒187) does not produce a sense of belonging in an ‘imaginary
community’ (B. Anderson 1983) of discussants. Only the ‘imaginary commu-
nity’ of the nation can achieve this, and here one stands in a more involved or
immediate way to them, thus gaining direct access to emotions otherwise
denied or put on hold (Taylor, 2007: 210).3 For Taylor, though, the imaginary
community of discussants is too ‘in the moment’ for this type of involvement.
The modern public sphere replaces older cosmological notions of circular time
with a sense of time that is profane or this-worldly. Cosmological time or ‘the
cosmological imaginary’ cohered around a sense of eternity, that is, a sense of
time as an ascent away from the everyday, a gathering of time into a unity
marked by particular rituals. As Taylor puts it, in modernity

events … exist only in this one [profane] dimension, in which they stand
at greater and lesser temporal distance, and in relations of causality with
other events of the same kind. The modern notion of simultaneity comes
to be, in which events utterly unrelated in cause or meaning are held
together simply by their co-occurrence at the same point in this single
profane time-line.
(Taylor, 2007: 195, 324ff)

This is ultimately what Taylor means by secularisation – a radically purged,

horizontally conceived time-consciousness in which we only relate to ‘known’
events on a lateral grid of experience, or ‘unknown’ ones in terms of what he
terms a ‘dark abyss’. In terms of the latter, time opens up and the question of
the infinite is not so much destroyed, but something that must be filled by
theoria, such as theories of evolution, and new mathematised theories of the
universe that can give an account not only of time, but also of creation itself
(Taylor, 2007: 322–351; Hawkins, 1989).
Yet there is an additional dimension to Taylor’s notion of secularisation
that stands at the heart of the formation of the modern public sphere, and is
more troubling for him than the economic imaginary. Because modern time
consciousness dispatches to oblivion a transcendent frame of reference located
outside of itself, the public sphere becomes completely self-referential. The
Charles Taylor’s critique of secularisation 213
common action of the modern public sphere is the making of opinion, and
the legitimacy of this opinion making is given over to itself. There is no extra-
social, legal or transcendent principle that anchors the nature and legitimacy
of making opinion. During the eighteenth century and onwards an imaginary
of sociability was constructed by philosophers and intellectuals who devolved
it into an emotionally detached, deontological yet mutually reasoning public.
If Kant’s essay ‘What is Enlightenment?’ is taken as the paradigmatic text
here, the public are expected to construct their own limits, to supervise
themselves and be their own authority (Kant, 1991: 54–60).
Moreover, this self-referential illocutionary model of the public sphere has
an explicit addressee – government. The public sphere speaks and government
is expected to listen. In this sense, the modern public sphere is political, yet it is
essentially extra-political. This self-authorisation of the public – that is, public
actors as authors of their own texts – inverts or differentiates an older political
tradition according to Taylor’s reconstruction. The modern public sphere is
redolent with the differentiation between opinion and power. As he states:

With the modern public sphere comes the idea that political power must
be supervised and checked by something outside. What was new, of course,
was not that there was an outside to check, but rather the nature of this
instance. It is not defined as the will of God, or the Law of Nature … but
as a kind of discourse, emanating from reason and not from power or
traditional authority … In this way, the public sphere was different from
everything preceding it. An ‘unofficial’ discussion, which nevertheless can
come to a verdict of great importance, it is defined outside the sphere of
(Taylor, 2007: 190)

There is nothing, for Taylor, to link public discussion inherently to the idea of
political society, and thus into something that transcends itself.
What then, according to Taylor, becomes of the imaginary of political
power given this differentiation between it and the public sphere? What is the
modernity of political power?
If self-defined and self-constituted reason is the imaginary of the modern
public sphere, then the ‘people’ form the imaginary of the political one even in
the context of its competing models. In this sense, there is no longer a covenant
between God and the kingly or queenly sovereign, but only a covenant
between the people themselves. This republican moment represents for Taylor
the revolutionary dimension of modernity and he finds its origins in the
American Revolution which transformed an older idea of natural law grounded
in the deified right of the sovereign into the natural law of the sovereignty of
the people.
Originally grounded on the older idea of natural law, the new imaginary of
the sovereignty of the people is, for Taylor, a reinterpretation that pushes the
idea of power into a new centre. No longer ordained by an external force it is
214 In search of transcendence
ordained by an internal one, that is, the constitution of the people. For him, this
is the secret of the new American federal arrangements. He is less concerned
with its circulation of power in centrifugal terms, a concern that preoccupies
de Tocqueville, for example. The empirical people of the United States
(excluding slaves) had to be synonymous with an imaginary universal ‘people’
of a federated centre that supplanted the role of each individual state or
political entity in the new post-colonial reality. As he states, ‘popular sover-
eignty could be embraced because it had a clear and uncontested institutional
meaning’, which gave the federated elected assemblies a legitimate basis for
power (Taylor, 2007: 199).4 The alternative was a ‘collapse’ into separate and
separated ‘denominations’ in which the specificity of political legitimacy lay
with a particular political ‘faith’, which could lay the ground for defensive
closure and territorialisation.5
For Taylor, the contrast with the French and the Russian revolutions could
not have been greater – there was a constant search for a new imaginary
centre after the ones of the old regimes had been dispatched. And for Taylor,
it is not so much that there were no institutions that could function as feder-
ated gradations of power; rather, there was no agreement among the intellec-
tuals and political actors about what these institutions might be. Hence there
was a double problem with the two later revolutions, both as realities and as
paradigms – there was an absence of the creation of the ideal of a legitimate
centre, and alongside this the creation of mediating institutions through which
power could circulate. And there were fierce and bloody disagreements about
both (Taylor, 2007: 206; Lefort, 2007; Fehér, 1987a; Furet, 1981).
As Taylor points out, the case of the French Revolution, especially during
its climactic period of 1792–1794, brings together the unstable combination of
harmony and virtue in an attempt to construct another new, modern political
imaginary that would address the question of the centre and its mediations in
a way different from both the American model, and the model of public opinion.
Rousseau becomes the indirect spokesman here. Rousseau wishes to dissolve the
two imaginaries of economic civilisation where self-interest is expressed at the
expense of others, and the public one where empathetic opinion about politics
is expressed with others in impersonal and dispassionate discussion. He
asserts that self-love or self-interest and empathy or sympathy can come
together through the love of the common good. ‘Self love is not distinct from
love of others’ (Taylor, 2007: 202). Rousseau’s modern goal is to create a new
basis of identity beyond egoism and thus rescue freedom from economistic
interpretations and place it under a broader umbrella of the ‘common self ’ or
the ‘general will’. ‘What we need’, according to Taylor’s Rousseau, ‘is the
exact opposite of disengagement; we need rather a re-engagement with what
is most intimate and essential in ourselves, rendered inaudible by the clamour
of the world’ (Taylor, 2007: 203).
It is here that virtue and harmony come together in a politicised union
during the French Revolution. Love of self is fused with love of country. The
‘republique’ symbolises a fusion of self, politics and nation, which causes the
Charles Taylor’s critique of secularisation 215
grey areas between each of them disappear – even the space of the public
sphere. The result, for Taylor, along with many other commentators, is a deeply
problematic and inauthentic re-sacralisation of a putative principle of trans-
cendence through the attempted reification of politics, which is also equated
with a claim to transparency. The ‘general will’ is exactly that – both sacred
and transparent, and as such it is the aspect that is missing, which creates
the legitimate centre. There are no hidden corners. From Rousseau’s perspec-
tive representative democracy is partial and opaque and cannot represent the
general will in its totality. Only participatory representation can be transparent,
where the political citizen is both performer and spectator, taking his or her
place in the public theatres and festivals of the political. Everybody represents
themselves and everybody else, where everyone is on display to be judged in
an orgy of what Foucault would later term in a slightly different context,
perpetual surveillant self-governmentality (Taylor, 2007: 203; Hegel, 1979;
Foucault, 1978). The possibility of the condition of a modern form of porosity
is born.
Moreover, in order for these public spectacles and festivals to be coherent
and give coherent meaning they must be clearly defined and clearly laid out.
They must have a catechism of belief that also indicates those who are corrupt
and not yet harmonised. The catechism, rather than constitution, is created
by the most virtuous of all, the new politicised intellectuals who during the
nineteenth century would be both its champions, for example in the form of
Tkachev and Cherneshevsky (who would agree on nothing else) and its critics
in the form of Marx and Dostoyevsky (who would also agree on nothing else)
(Rundell, 1990: 125–151; Cherneshevsky, 1961; Marx and Engels, 1975;
Dostoyevsky, 1971).
It was a small step from this Rousseauian dream to the nightmare of the
Leninist party, which replaces the general will as the imaginary centre. This
heralds the invention of the imaginary of totalitarianism on the back of the
ideal of both the revolutionary vanguard and the protectors of the revolution
itself. This is irrespective of whether this party becomes the property of the Left
or the Right, the West or the East. Taylor’s analysis of the Rousseauian fusion
of harmony and virtue points in the direction of another political imaginary
altogether, the development of the nation state and its potential to impose or
deploy its own particular invention, the totalitarian option. Like the other
imaginaries, it is an invention of modernity, but one which Taylor, while
identifying a redemptive impulse, which, as we shall see below, he fuses with
the distinctly modern features of nation building.6

Liberal civilisation and the buffered self

Notwithstanding this complexity, different dimensions and disagreements,
and in a telescoping of interpretative horizons, each imaginary is informed by
the same modern meta-norm, according to Taylor’s reconstruction. This
meta-norm is first articulated paradigmatically by Grotius’s image of political
216 In search of transcendence
society in which human beings are conceived ‘as rational, sociable agents who
are meant to collaborate in peace to their mutual benefit’ (Taylor, 2007: 159).
This meta-norm becomes imbedded in debates throughout the seventeenth,
and especially the eighteenth, century onwards concerning the nature and
organisation of civil society, which as we have seen involves its own internal
differentiation. The meta-norm’s greatest champion, for Taylor, is Hegel, and
its greatest critic is Marx.
To be sure, in Taylor’s view this meta-norm or idealisation of peaceful,
rational and mutually beneficial sociability or ‘the order of mutual benefit’ in
civil society has four dimensions that form a coherent field of interpretation in
which, as we have seen, different redactions or versions are created through each
of the imaginaries. These four dimensions begin first ‘with individuals and
conceives society as established for their sake’; which entails, second, that mutual
benefit is individualistically conceived and spread laterally throughout society
through means of monetary exchange, security and prosperity, rather than being
hierarchically organised (Taylor, 2007: 170; Febvre, 1998: 160–190). Third,
security, exchange and prosperity are filtered through a language of individual
right, the corollary of which is the individualistically conceived value of freedom,
here viewed as a self-determining agency. Fourth, rights of self-determining
agency and mutual benefit are to be secured by all participants equally. Here
interpretations of freedom and a formal notion of equality are dovetailed
through the notion of right. The meta-norm becomes a point of orientation
through which people are ‘disembedded’ from older and more traditional forms
of sociability and mobilised (Taylor’s term) in ways that make it individualistic,
atomised and alienated. This meta-norm of peaceful, rational and mutually
beneficial sociability becomes the self-legitimating reference point for what
Taylor terms the ‘closed world order’ of liberal civilisation, with its codes of
governmentality, the other side of so-called civility (Taylor, 2007: 556–580).7
It is in this context of the articulation of these meta-narratives within the
modern imaginaries that Taylor posits two contrasting images of selfhood to
underpin his version of modernity and his critique of it – a non-modern and a
modern one. The non-modern self is porous, and by this he means that it is
‘vulnerable, to spirits, demons, cosmic forces’ (Taylor, 2007: 38). Taylor’s view
of the pre- or non-modern self is that it is one that is contextualised and
constituted by a porosity between two worlds, the mundane and the enchanted.
Crucially, for him, there is an emotional engagement in the enchanted through
fear.8 This emotional involvement through fear means that the enchanted
realm cannot be kept at bay. Moreover, these two worlds are not interpreted
simply supernaturally; rather they are interpreted on the basis of a principle
of transcendence, which is based on the supremacy and sovereignty of the
enchanted world with its cosmology, vertical and eternal sense of time,
theogony and miracles. This enchanted imaginary is an exceptional world.
The human world finds the enchanted ultimately indeterminate, mysterious
and unknowable, even though it has a porous relation to us, and we to it
(Taylor, 2007: 73).
Charles Taylor’s critique of secularisation 217
In contrast to the porous self, the result of the modern social imaginaries
and meta-norm of rational and mutual sociability at the level of self-formation
is the ‘buffered self’, the term Taylor now deploys for the objectivistic version
of the self-defining subject. This is the central point of his long and complex
reconstruction. The buffered self is, for him, contextualised and constituted by
a knowledge and maintenance of boundary positions. This is its quaint
meaning. It does not refer to the sense of being safeguarded or cushioned.
Rather, the boundary functions as a facilitating defence or bulwark that keeps
other imaginaries or worlds at bay. It is facilitating in the sense that the buffer
can, in his view, ‘form the ambition of disengaging from whatever is beyond
the boundary, and of giving its own autonomous order to its life. The absence
of fear can be not just enjoyed, but seen as an opportunity for self-control or
self-direction’, or as he has characterised it in his book on Hegel, objectivistically
construed self-definition (Taylor, 2007: 39; Taylor, 1975). Hence, for Taylor,
and in this context of his critique of modern self-formation, secularisation or
the secular age is really a stand-in category, a substitute for images that portray
emotional singularisation, disengagement and detachment, compartmentalisation
and instrumental objectification.
As importantly, and in a final telescoping of his interpretation of modernity
that goes against the grain of his image of its complexity, this buffered self, in
which modalities of self-control and disciplinisation are invented, refined and
move centre stage, constitute what Taylor terms an ‘immanent frame’ (Taylor,
2007: 542). By this he means all resources for the modern cacophony of meaning,
value and morality, which give the buffered self its life and definition within any
of the social imaginaries, are constituted immanently. In other words, these
resources are viewed as internal to the human condition and its social con-
stituents irrespective of whether they are derived from exchange, reason, or
political legitimacy. The modern, buffered self with its frame of immanence
indicates, for Taylor, the overemphasised ideal of objectivistically construed
self-definition coupled with an anthropology of self-sufficiency that constitutes
all of the imaginaries including the Rousseauian version of sovereignty, that
is, the general will. We have need for neither gods, demons nor even nature.
As he states, ‘the life of the buffered individual, instrumentally effective in
secular time, created the practical content within which the self-sufficiency of
this immanent realm could become a matter of experience’ (Taylor, 2007: 543).9
The modern buffered self and its world encloses upon itself, confident of its
self-authoring self-sufficiency.
The modern human being begins to control interpretation. For example,
the rise of post-Galilean natural science constructed a ‘physical’ world

naturalised [and] governed by exceptionless laws, which may [or may not]
reflect the wisdom or benevolence of a creator, but don’t require in order
to be understood … any reference to a good aimed at, whether in the
form of a Platonic Idea or of Ideas in the mind of God.
(Taylor, 2007: 542)
218 In search of transcendence
This occurred not just in science but also in all of the imaginaries – and for
Taylor this is the second basic problem and predicament with the modern
human condition and its social imaginaries. At both levels of the social
imaginaries and modern self-formation, the desire for control, as well as the
endless inchoate din that this desire produces, displaces and remains deaf to
indetermination. The result is flat and empty, intrumentalised soullessness.
Soullessness was not so much an empty internal space that had been hollowed
out. Because of the way it had been constructed immanently it was always
hollow to begin with. For Taylor, this is the dark abyss of modern times, the
modern condition in all of its imaginaries. We can, according to Taylor, only
be saved by shifting our gaze elsewhere, to an enchanted imaginary that posits
a condition of transcendence beyond and outside of our secular selves.

Poetics of transcendence
Christians today have to climb out of an age in which Hell and the wrath of
God are often very faintly felt, if they are understood at all. But they live in a
world where objectification and excarnation reign, where death undermines
(Taylor, 2007: 753)

In this unusually short passage with its concise formulation Taylor indicates
very clearly what, for him are the stakes of his critique of liberal civilisation
and its secular age of the buffered self. For him there are two stakes, one of which
belongs to the problem of modernity, the buffered self, and its shallowness of
meaning and its inability to address issues of life and death with any sub-
stantial depth. The other issue is not to invoke or return to an older punitive
doctrine of religious belief within the Christian (for him, Catholic) tradition,
but to invoke a new hermeneutics of the mysterious, in which new conversion
practices and German Romantic poetry and its successor forms combine to
become, for Taylor, the counter-paradigm to objectivistic liberal civilisation
with its buffered self.
To be sure, there is a modern porosity, which as indicated above finds some
expression in the Rousseauian ideal of the ‘general will’ that is the forerunner to
the totalitarian experiments of the twentieth century, and it is this that Taylor, to
be sure, finds as disturbing as the modern buffering that is immanent to liberal
cultures of governmentality. However, Taylor has more than Rousseau and
totalitarianism in mind, although they are not too far away from his thoughts
when he invokes the spectre of modern porosity. What can, in the spirit of his
work, be termed the condition of modern porosity refers to the conditions of
modern violence, suffering, evil, fanaticism and terrorism all of which call upon
and creatively reinterpret an older religious paradigm of sacrifice. As Taylor
points out, religious imaginaries (and here he has in mind most religions
including non-Axial ones) often swing between two poles – one defined by the
condition of absolute love, and another defined by absolute or demonic evil
Charles Taylor’s critique of secularisation 219
(to be sure as the outer limit) (Taylor, 2007: 651–675, 715). As such they
make impossible and unfulfillable demands upon the soul under the language
of sacrifice, especially ultimate sacrifice, with its language of salvation and
redemption (Taylor, 2007: 651–656). Redemptive porosity can include an
invocation to identify and merge with evil, violence and suffering, that is, with
the demonic. Modern porosity draws on another feature of axial porosity,
though. According to Taylor, and in following the work of René Girard, the
latter includes not only a hierarchical relation with the transcendent, but also
establishes an internal link between violence and the sacred in terms of identi-
fying those who are scapegoated and thus excluded, punished, excommunicated
or put to death (Taylor, 2007: 686).10 For Taylor, this principle of exclusion
based on scapegoating establishes the continuities between pre-modern axial
and modern redemptive or sacrificial porosity.
However, there are also major differences and innovations between the two.
Modern redemptive porosity, so Taylor argues, is invoked through several
sources – the tempestuousness of ‘Nature’, the roar and violence of the crowd,
the thrill and thrall of violence itself, and all of these no longer evoke the
‘Divine’ or the ‘Demonic’. Rather, a secular higher purpose replaces them,
and it provides no limits, just a rationalisable series of techniques. In an argu-
ment that is similar to Bauman’s in his Modernity and the Holocaust, Taylor
argues that ‘where much earlier warfare was ritualised, and hence limited,
post-Axial sacred killing will become more and more rationalised and limitless’
(Taylor, 2007: 686; Bauman, 1989). Unlike Bauman it is not the integrationist
dilemma that is the background to the exterminist imagination of the con-
centration camps or the Gulag. Rather, for Taylor, its modern genealogy origi-
nates from the Jacobin phase of the French revolution, which becomes the
modern paradigm where the justice of the guillotine reigns. ‘The killing is
seen to be more rational (directed against targets that really deserve it), clean,
clinical and technological (the guillotine), and to bring about the real reign of
good.’ In addition, the buffered worlding of the secular age entails a differentia-
tion between the higher purpose and the technical rationalisation of killing
that obfuscates the connection between them. Taylor continues,

this will be the reign of peace: Robespierre in his vote on the new con-
stitution, sided with those who wanted to ban the death penalty. The
disconnect between the final goals and the sacred killing which was
meant to encompass it couldn’t be more striking. And when we move
into the twentieth century, we can see a revolutionary violence, boosted
by rational technology, which dwarfs the horrors of all earlier ages.
(Taylor, 2007: 687)11

In contrast to Arendt’s analysis of Eichmann for example there is a deep

unbridgeable rift of understanding between the grandeur of modern sacred
plans and the banal barbarism of their implementation (Arendt, 2006). For
him, this is modern porosity. And it is self-defined.
220 In search of transcendence
For Taylor, the challenge of and for modernity, for the secular age, is to
provide protection from the machinations of modern porosity, or modern evil,
which a modern bounded or buffered self, nor any of its constituent imagin-
aries, cannot provide. As he says:

This is, as it were, a condition which arises even in a disenchanted world:

we are unprotected; now not from demons and spirits, but from suffering
and evil as we sense it in a raging world. There are unguarded moments
when we feel the immense weight of suffering, when we are dragged
down by it, or pulled down into despair. Being in contact with war, or
famine, or massacre, or pestilence, will press this on us. But beyond suf-
fering there is evil; for instance, the infliction of suffering, the cruelty,
fanaticism, joy or laughter at the suffering of the victims. And then, what
is worse, the sinking into brutality, the insensible brute violence of the
criminal. It’s almost like a nightmare. One wants to be protected, sepa-
rated from this. But it can creep under your guard and assail you, even in
a disenchanted world.
(Taylor, 2007: 681)

Taylor’s response to this lack of protection of modernity by modernity is to

argue that modernity does not have the resources internal to itself to respond
to its own dilemmas and difficulties. Modernity cannot meet its own chal-
lenges because it lacks the depth to do so. For Taylor modernity’s fate is to
produce a wonderfully monstrous paradox – once the world was discovered to
be round and its motion circular around the sun, it became flat and linear.
The result of this is that, for him, meaning at best becomes fragile. At worst,
it becomes empty, or we become indifferent to it. Taylor identifies and draws
on the unquiet critics of modernity from Romanticism to existentialism who
point to this spectre of meaninglessness.

[We] are left with a view of human life which is empty, cannot aspire
commitment, offers nothing really worthwhile, cannot answer the craving
for goals we can dedicate ourselves to. Human happiness can only inspire
us when we have to fight against the forces which are destroying it; but
once realised, it will inspire nothing but ennui, a cosmic yawn.
(Taylor, 2007: 717–718)

However and more importantly for Taylor this modern condition of meaningless
and lack of depth entails an inability to comprehend and address the per-
ennial issues that are internal to the human condition itself. These perennial
issues, for Taylor, are love and death, although the condition of our finitude
and mortality, for him, is the most pressing and prescient. Love and death
throw the contingency of life into relief. When a love finishes or dies, so it
seems, does life. When someone dies, so does life, literally. This sense of finitude,
of the mortality of love and life and the certainty of death, throws into relief
Charles Taylor’s critique of secularisation 221
the search for continuity, which is synonymous with meaning, and presses us
‘against the boundaries of the human domain’. Only meaning can provide
continuity, which for him, always reached into the transcendent. According to
Taylor, we are staring into the face of modernity’s greatest paradox:

The Christian paradox drops away: death is no longer the source of life.
But there is new paradox: there seems to be a renewed affirmation of
transcendence, of something beyond flourishing, in the sense of a point to
life beyond life. But at the same time, this is denied, because this point
has absolutely no anchorage in the nature of reality. To search for this
point in reality is to encounter only le Néant.
(Taylor, 2007: 726)

In the face of death, according to Taylor, life should show its full and deep
need for meaning.
However, Taylor does not recommend returning to an older religion tradition
that re-invokes the redemptive distinctions between Heaven and Hell. For him,

There can be no question … of a simple return to the status quo ante

Deismo. If I speak from out of this religious understanding, in which I
place myself, then this modern turn has brought some positive benefits; in
say detaching our view of the first mystery (original sin) from an obsessive
sense of human depravity; and giving us a distance from the juridical-
penal view of atonement … Our hyper-Augustinian ancestors were part
of a religious culture in which it was normal to find divine meaning to
suffering and destruction … The break of modernity means that this kind
of reading no longer can be taken for granted.
(Taylor, 2007: 653)

Taylor thus asks for a different hermeneutics of and for the transcendent, but one
that, as mentioned above, does not fall into the trap of old religious languages
and traditions, or new ones that marry the hermeneutics of faith with the
politics of exclusion. As he provisionally asks,

how can we become agents on whom misanthropy has no hold, in whom

it awakens no connivance? There is of course, a Christian account of this …
This cannot be a matter of guarantee, only of faith. It can be described in
two ways. Either as love/compassion which is unconditional, that is, not
based on what you the recipient have made of yourself, or as one based
on what you are most profoundly, a being in the image of God.
(Taylor, 2007: 701)

It is precisely here that Taylor evokes and modernises the Christian tradition
of agape in order to counter the traps of violence in modern porosity, with its
background in the axial religious traditions, and the incipient and never fully
222 In search of transcendence
recognised misanthropy that lurks in the shadow of liberal civilisation. For
him, there are two sources for this modernisation – one stemming from
the modern preoccupation with everyday life, and another from the modern
preoccupation with the mysterious through ‘acts of conversion’, which have
affinities with Romanticism.
There are many critiques of everyday life within the traditions of critical
theorising that attack it for its consumerism, for its mundane culture, and for
its narrowness – its own forms of solipsism. Taylor does not share these
prejudices. Rather, for him, and in counter to the Augustinian emphasis on
sinfulness, disgust and the rejection of the body and sexuality, the recognition
of the everyday is recognition of the ordinary, foibled nature of human beings
as they go about their imperfect, embodied and desiring lives. Taylor recognises
that this ordinary foibled everyday life, in which we are sensual, embodied
beings who, while aiming at the mark of good conduct, certainly sometimes
miss it, cannot or should not be transcended. Whatever its sources – the
Protestant Reformation re-evaluation of agape as ordinary, matrimonial
friendship, the modern reading of the Eros tradition, or even Nietzsche’s
ambivalent recognition of our ‘human-all-too-human’ condition – one should, as
Taylor suggests, ‘recognise the positive force and value of these homecomings of
the ordinary’ (Taylor, 2007: 628).12 What is recovered in these moments of
re-evaluation and reinterpretation ‘is a sense of the value of the unspectacular,
flawed everyday love, between lovers, or friends, or parents and children, with
its routines and labours, partings and reunions, estrangements and returns’
(Taylor, 2007: 628).
However, for Taylor, a sense of mystery, of the indeterminate, is more sig-
nificant as it opens onto a new way of positing the porous self in the wake of
modernity and its immanent frame. As he says,

having come to sense how vast the universe is in time and space, how
deep its micro-constitution goes into the infinitesimal, and feeling thus
both our insignificance and fragility, we also see what a remarkable thing
it is that out of this immense, purposeless machine, life and thus feeling,
imagination and thought emerge. Here is where a religious person will
easily confess a sense of mystery.
(Taylor, 2007: 367, emphasis added).

For Taylor, this sense of mystery is the basis for the beginning of human
fullness. Fullness, for him is a condition and an outcome of the recognition
of, and gesture towards, transcendence.13 Life-changing fullness is not only
beyond ordinariness, but also beyond the self, and one that embraces sacredness.
Sacredness, for Taylor, does not refer to establishing a communion with God,
or a new community of believers in the context of the established Christian
Churches. All of the churches, including the new dissenting ones, according to
Taylor are implicated in the buffered world of liberal civilisation, the result
of which is the bureaucratisation and instrumentalisation of the traditions of
Charles Taylor’s critique of secularisation 223
agape and caritas (Taylor, 2007: 737–744). Rather, for Taylor, sacredness is
opening oneself to the mystery, depth and verticality that transcendent porosity
offers. In order to achieve this, a breakout from the immanent frame has been
required. Notwithstanding his references to ordinary, everyday life, this break-
out, which has amounted to a paradigm shift as a counter-modernity, has
occurred from two directions that have altered and transformed our under-
standing beyond the usual scope of the ordinary, either within or outside its
imbeddedness in liberal civilisation. As mentioned above, these two directions
beyond the ordinary are Romanticism and what he terms modern ‘acts of
conversion’, or a new religious hermeneutics and practice.
In Hegel, Taylor termed the Romantic type of engaged and involved self a
subjectivistically inclined self-defining one (Taylor, 1975: 3–50). In A Secular
Age (2007), this subjectivist version of self-definition is replaced with the notion
of transcendence and its accompanying image of porosity, but in a way that
also enables a dialogue with modernity’s counter-heritage of Romanticism to
be established. According to Taylor, Romanticism’s strength and gift to moder-
nity is not only its sensibility to the dangers of the buffered self, but also and
more importantly, a continued opening and theorisation of our supposedly
porous, transcendent relation with other worlds, especially those of enchanted
Nature and the Divine (Taylor, 2007: 299–351). From another perspective
Romanticism’s heritage has also opened up the issue of the depth of the sub-
ject, that is, feelings, emotions and imaginings that cannot be encapsulated in
objectivistic or normative languages, or motivated only by awe and fear.15
More specifically, the early German Romantic reflection on what poetry
offered humankind in the wake of ‘a secular age’ becomes central for the
modern, non-redemptive paradigm of transcendent porosity. Taylor privileges
the Romantic generation, from the Schlegel brothers to Novalis and Hölderlin,
for which poetry becomes the means and the ‘text’ of Spirit, not in the sense
of Hegel’s Geist, but in the sense that it strives to render something that
transcends humanity. Poetry works at the edge of language and for Taylor this
richness of poetry’s symbolic universe is what attracts him to it. For Taylor, this
emerges most forcefully through Augustus Schlegel’s doctrine of the symbol
in which

the highest things, things to do with the infinite, with God, with our
deepest feelings, can only be made objects of thought and consideration
for us through expression in symbols … on this view, there is something
performative about poetry; through creating symbols it establishes new
meanings. Poetry is potentially world-making.
(Taylor, 2007: 756)16

As such, poetry also opens onto and works with the indeterminate, or, for
Taylor, the grandeur and unknownness of God. It enters a space, often
through an understated symbolic gesture, that we ourselves cannot enter. As
such, Taylor’s emphasis is beyond the usual subjectivist interpretation of
224 In search of transcendence
Romantic poetry. Poetry reaches into the ‘invisible’, which for Taylor is the
The other current idea that, for Taylor, informs his modern, non-redemptive
paradigm of transcendent porosity is that of ‘creative renewal’, which is
experienced as a conversion that opens up the mystery and experience of the
divine. Drawing on the work of the French poet and worker’s activist of the early
twentieth century, Charles Péguy, Taylor’s reconstruction and hermeneutics of
‘creative renewal’ or conversion involves the following four aspects. First,
there is a notion of authentic action, which links ordinary, everyday life, present
and past together, rather than disaggregates them, and brings them into align-
ment, for both Taylor and Péguy, with transcendent or cosmological time. It is
also equivalent to a notion of transcendent freedom, which links to the second
aspect – a plurality of mystical experiences in which all of Judaism and
Christianity contribute their own particular versions of mystery, and their access
to it. Taylor implies that all of the axial religions have their own forms of
mystery, although Péguy’s reference points were Jewish, Christian and what
he terms French mystique. Mystery, in this sense, is polytheistic, rather than
‘multicultural’ in a consumerist or liberal sense. Third, there is an emphasis
on the image of harmonious cohesion and integration along the lines put
forward not only by Péguy, but also by Durkheim and Mauss in their defence
of modern corporatism, which Taylor, for one has defended in his discussion
of the specificity of Quebequois culture; and fourth, the polytheism of sacred
practices and paths is matched by a universalistic attitude towards salvation. It
is available to everyone, and there is no ‘space’ of Hell, no space of banishing
the negative to the outside (Taylor, 2007: 744–754).17 This is where, ultimately,
Taylor’s position comes to rest. We are outside the paradigm of the self-
defining subject and have come to reside, not in Grand Hotel Abyss, but for
Taylor, beyond ourselves, almost entirely. Taylor’s position is not a religious
subjectivism, it is not a calling. Rather, it is a hermeneutics that combines the
poetics of Romanticism and religious experiences of conversion. It calls for the
interpretative work of the counter-paradigm or counter-imaginary of transcen-
dence with its own contours and innovations to continue to inform the work of
critique, as well as the work of renewal, of renaissance, fullness and human
flourishing in the context of the very problematic condition of modernity.

The indeterminate, the beyond, and the very human condition

Yet, Taylor’s view of modernity is one that he shares with Adorno and Foucault,
even if they would not share his disposition towards transcendence.18 It is
constituted by a meta-principle of instrumental rationality that defines the
internal life of each of the imaginaries. But there is a twist here. The twist, for
Taylor, is that because this rationality is conceived as being anthropologically
self-defined or self-constructed, it is a self-definition that is ultimately solipsistic
and denies the possibility of the indeterminate, and especially an indeterminate
beyond itself, which he only supposes and posits in terms of transcendence.
Charles Taylor’s critique of secularisation 225
All of Taylor’s imaginaries of modernity are stabilised around a ‘great’ divide
between transcendence (rather than simply religious belief), which is viewed
as being synonymous with meaning per se, and non-transcendent secular
forms of thought and action that are viewed as profane or less than meaningful.
It is here, too, that secularisation is also a stand-in category for modernity
more generally, thus forging a synonymous relation between them. This image
of the ‘great divide’ includes Taylor’s reconstruction where his idea of ‘moral
space’, so thoroughly drawn in Sources of the Self (1989), to be sure is dee-
pened and enriched when constituted if not religiously, then as a realm of
Taylor’s A Secular Age (2007) remains an argument against the long
modern history of the formation of what might be termed, ‘this-sided’ philo-
sophical anthropologies of human self-formation. Taylor argues that such
philosophical anthropologies cannot adequately address the problem of inde-
terminate transcendence, even if they approach this issue as a critique of
modernity through its Romantic heritage alone.
The question or problem of indetermination, though, need not be equated
with transcendence, poetry, or even a Heideggerian inspired negative theology.19
Rather, a different possibility presents itself that begins from the position of
indetermination and thus short circuits the immediate identification of
rationality with control, instrumentality and modernity, contrasted by ‘the
invisible’, nature, the sublime, and the poetic, which has fascinated critics
since Romanticism. Taylor stands in its wake and shares its prejudices.
We can begin with another paradigm entirely, not because of any particular
fidelity, but because of the insights that it may offer. The first very simple idea
is that the human being is the being that is de-functionalised, mad, ‘unfit for
life’ in the Castoriadian sense, and this de-functionalisation is constituted by
the permanent, indeterminate and contingent flux of imaginary activity – by its
imaginings. The human animal is the un-taken-for-granted-animal. Here,
however, the imagination is not synonymous with phantasie, in the Aristotelian
and Platonic traditions, or with poiesy, in the Romantic tradition. It is something
else again.
A starting point for such a position can be taken from Castoriadis’s notion
of the radical imaginary. In his terms, the radical imaginary is the source of
the ontological indeterminacy of the human condition, an indeterminacy that
is non-functional, that is, not geared to the functionality of life, and inde-
terminate in terms of its creations. In other words, and in terms slightly
different from his, the radical imaginary is autonomous in the sense that it is
open to the indetermination of the forms that it creates. Moreover, these
forms are the source of meaning, and as such we are meaning creating creatures,
irrespective of historical contexts.
The second very simple idea is that this ‘unfitness for life’ requires ‘society’,
whatever this might mean. Perhaps it might be better to say that we are
located in figurational fields or social imaginaries. I have argued above that
there are five quite different fields that constitute modernity, each with its own
226 In search of transcendence
spatial and temporal dimensions: the capitalisation of social relations, indus-
trialisation, democracy, nation state formation, and aesthetic expressivism.
They are irreducible to each other, even though they may dovetail and sup-
port one another. They can also be the basis for contestation. Modernity is a
complex, differentiating social form in which the dissonances that are created
within and between the fields and modern social imaginaries are the normal
part of our lives.
The third simple idea is this unfitness for life also makes subjectivity and
intersubjectivity problematic, less than straightforward. There is also an
unfitness of a subject for society irrespective of its historical period. This also
entails that there is an unfitness for intersubjectivity. Intersubjectivity – if it
occurs at all – is less than straightforward and more complex, often a small
miracle. What is often viewed as intersubjectivity is simply mediated interaction
across spaces in figurational fields. There are always interactions, less often than
not, intersubjectivity (Rundell, 2004a: 307‒343; 2013a: 3‒20).20 Intersubjectivity
may be viewed as a space or meeting place between social individuals, each with
their own radical and social imaginings. Interactions between human beings
take form in ways that have meaning for the subjects involved, meaning that
can be imposed or agreed, understood or misapprehended, acquiesced or
contested. Because intersubjectivity is a space between ego and alter, it is a
space that can remain either closed or open. It may also contract or expand.
It can also be ignored. In this sense, the space has a meaning for the subjects
involved, in part, but only in part, grounded in the patterns of recognition
and non-recognition, reciprocity and non-reciprocity, symmetricity and
asymmetricity that are expressed at any one time, that is, historically.
Furthermore, because intersubjectivity is theorised in terms of the relative,
spatial forms of closure or openness, it cannot be reduced to one form alone.
Closure or openness – and in the case of the latter, recognition and non-
recognition, reciprocity and non-reciprocity, symmetricity and asymmetricity
give range to imaginarily constituted intersubjectivities in both unsociable and
social forms (Rundell, 2004a).21
In summary, then, and from the vantage point of indetermination and
the question of form, human acts are imaginary creations at both levels of
the psyche and the social imaginary in which meaning and representation are
intrinsic to them. It is suggested that we create, reflect on and judge the
indeterminate imaginary creations that humans give form to from the closed
and unsociable ones of violence and cruelty to sociable and opening ones of
love and care, friendliness and magnanimity, and power. In other words, we
create imaginarily constituted spaces – some of which invoke closure, while
others invite openness and even depth.
If human beings invent or create everything, including spaces for sociality
and intersubjectivity, they also create practical reasoning and not only the
technical one. Practical reasoning is the type of reasoning that opens the space
of sociality to at least a minimal form of judgement and critique. However, as
an imaginary creation, even at the social level, it is a gift of opening. Perhaps
Charles Taylor’s critique of secularisation 227
this can be captured under the name of second-order reflexivity, where it does
not refer in this instance to the self-imposition of political rule by a demos. In
Castoriadis’s anthropological rather than political terminology, it also refers
to the self-recognition and self-imposition of limits, where self-limitation
becomes an act of responsibility towards the other. And to be sure, it is humans
who have this capacity. Like Mauss’s view on the gift, reciprocity may be an
expectation that can be instituted as a social norm, but distinct from it, it is not
one that exists immediately at the level of human self-creation.
Here, in the midst of the recognition of self-limitation towards others, we
begin to acknowledge that we have no control, or if we do we can relinquish it.
Moreover, this acknowledgement is always accompanied by another acknowl-
edgement that we do not know, and that we can cannot control the web or world
of interpretations into which we are thrown. In this regard, we can follow,
too, the footsteps of Martin Seel rather than those of Castoriadis, where, in
his interpretation of Adorno’s work, he emphasises autonomy (or Adorno’s
positive notion of freedom) as ‘letting the other be without interference’, in
other words, of letting the other remain unknown (Seel, 2004: 259–270); of
letting it remain mysterious, of letting mystery to remain. It is also, perhaps, a
restatement of Kant’s notion of beauty as a type of freedom qua ‘purposiveness
without purpose’. Here, we do not need to reciprocate, or have an expectation
that the gift returns.
Perhaps, too, this is what Heller means when she refers to the integration of
emotion, dignity and the beautiful in which the recognition of our foibles is at
its core (Heller, 1999, 2011: 67–80). In her A Theory of History she recounts a
story told by Castoriadis in which his Greek peasant great-grandfather plants
olive trees for his great-grandchildren. This was no self-denial or deferred
gratification, but a pleasure. For her, practical reasoning denotes a responsibility,
and its self-limitation resembles the pleasure of planting olive trees (Heller,
1982: 35). And one could say that it resembles this pleasure in a double sense.
It is part of a sensuous‒imaginary life where responsibility is lived as com-
mitment which is orientated towards the future, and hence towards others,
not as the fast, technically instituted time of progress and control, but as slow
time. But this slow time is also a time for the openness of the gift – the time
for different kinds of imaginings, mysteries that cannot or need not be solved,
for reflection, and opening and deepening relationships with both human and
non-human subjects.

1 See for example, Hefner, 1998: 83–104; Turner, 2006: 437–455; Luckmann, 1983
for analyses of secularisation and the permanent place of religion in modern
2 Taylor also argues that Baudelaire and Proust comprehensively contribute to this
understanding of modernity through the notions of ‘ennui’ and ‘spleen’ (Baude-
laire) and of disconnected pasts that are remembered (Proust). See Taylor, 2007:
719, 727.
228 In search of transcendence
3 See Taylor’s further discussion of ‘the sociability of strangers’, which for him is a
sociability of alienation and diremption that opens spaces for new vulnerabilities as
well as new forms of evil-doing. What appears as self-authoring is significantly less
than self-flourishing (Taylor, 2007: 585, 574–580).
4 One might want to add that this model of the federated circulation of power predates
the American one and includes experiments within Renaissance cities and the
Swiss federation. It also becomes a model for the later formation of the Australian
and Canadian national polities, the German one after 1945, and the development
of the European Union; see Althussius, 1965.
5 This is the implication of Taylor’s discussion of American Protestant denomi-
nationalism (2007: 450–455)
6 There is also another political imaginary – a centrist one – that Taylor ignores or
bypasses in his catalogue of modern imaginaries, even when sovereignty passes
from the royal principle to the principle of the people. In many ways arguments about
the state become indifferent to this issue, and emphasise instead its functioning as a
self-sustaining unit among other states. In other words, it becomes its own imaginary.
This is one that emphasises the imaginary of the state and includes the French
version articulated by Bodin as well as the German one articulated by Pufendorf
and Clausewitz in the wake of the Treaty of Westphalia in 1650. This centrist one
dovetails readily with the totalitarian imaginary. See for example, Giddens, 1985;
Besançon, 1981; Pipes, 1974; Arnason, 1993.
7 In his sympathetic discussion of Illich’s critique of modern bureaucratic culture
Taylor remarks that ‘codes, even the best codes, can become idolatrous traps,
which tempt us to complicity in violence. Illich can remind us not to become
totally invested in the code, even the best code of peace-loving, egalitarian liberal-
ism’. He continues, ‘we should find the centre of our spiritual lives beyond the
code, deeper than the code, which must even from to time to time subvert it’
(Taylor, 2007: 743).
8 Taylor’s construction and critique of modernity is one that is both similar to and
different from the one that he deployed in Sources of the Self. In both A Secular
Age and Sources of the Self images of selfhood are developed that are contextual
and conversational – hermeneutic in the sense that the self is an entity that develops
conversations in the context of social universes. or imaginaries in the above sense
that Taylor has used this term. This is irrespective of whether these conversations
are inwardly or outwardly directed. In The Sources of the Self Taylor argues that
the self is located permanently in a moral universe that provides guidance for
action. In A Secular Age, the argument is more refined and the moral universe now
includes an emotional one. It is less cognitivistic, less ‘Aristotelian’. Emotions more
importantly than morals, so Taylor’s argument goes, signify a dividing line between
the pre-modern self and the modern one, and provide the point of entry into his
critique of modernity.
9 Taylor identifies four aspects to modern ‘closed world structures’; they claim that
science has shown that God does not exist, by so doing they subtract the mysterious
from the world in general, they produce modern political‒moral spaces, or new
public spheres, finally they prioritise the notion of the self-authorisation of values
by the autonomous self (Taylor, 2007: 589).
10 Taylor has a somewhat overly positive view of the axial religions when he states,
‘over against this, the axial religions offered routes of escaping/taming/overcoming
this maelstrom of opposing forces. They offered a path towards a fuller, higher
good’ (611). See also Girard, 1977; and Kearney (2002), who also draws on
Girard’s work.
11 Elsewhere Taylor is even grimmer when he identifies the reversals that occur in the
shadow of liberal civilisation, which flip good intentions into evil outcomes
(Taylor, 2007: 709).
Charles Taylor’s critique of secularisation 229
12 Taylor’s main point of reference is Nussbaum (1986), which discusses the re-evaluation
of the Eros tradition within the context of everyday life. For the Protestant re-evaluation
see Singer, 1984/1987, vol. 1; see also Nietzsche, 1986.
13 See Taylor (2007: 768) where he says, ‘I foresee another future, based on another
supposition. This is the opposite of the mainstream view. In our religious lives we
are responding to a transcendent reality. We all have some sense of this, which
emerges in our identifying and recognising some mode of what I have called fullness,
and seeking to attain it’.
14 ‘In this perspective, something crucial in the Samaritan story gets lost. A world
ordered by this system of rules, disciplines, organisations can only see contingency
as an obstacle, even and enemy and a threat’ (Taylor, 2007: 742).
15 See for example Taylor’s discussion of Schiller’s work (Taylor, 2007: 313–321). See
Schiller, 1967; see also Frank, 1999.
16 Elsewhere Taylor will comment that ‘through language in its constitutive use (let’s
call it poetry), we open up contact with something higher or deeper (be it God, or
the depths of human nature, desire, the Will to Power, or whatever) through language.
Poetry can be seen as an event with performative force, words that open up contact,
make something manifest for the first time’ (Taylor, 2007: 758). See also Schlegel,
1982; Hölderlin, 1982; Schlegel, 1971: 161–197, Fragments 1–250; Schiller, 1967:
especially letters 3, 6, 12, 15, 26 and 27. Taylor’s understanding of poetry, while
standing in the wake of Heidegger, is less tragic and prone to a negative theology,
more performative, more resonant.
17 Taylor also discusses the works of Emmanuel Mounier, which emphasised a philoso-
phy of ‘personalism’ within the context of the Catholic worker’s movement, and
the French philosopher Jacques Maritain as contributing to the hermeneutics of
modern non-redemptive porosity.
18 This goes against the grain of Taylor’s own earlier critical engagement with Foucault’s
work in, for example, ‘Foucault on freedom and Truth’.
19 In Strangers, Gods and Monsters Kearney, for example, discusses these dimensions
of indeterminacy and spatiality under the umbrella of the Platonic notion of khora,
which opens his own work up as a hermeneutics towards God. In the Timeus,
Plato, as Kearney notes, reflects on the problem of a primordial origin from which
all things, especially meaning (and the distinction between it and truth) emanate. For
Plato, the space of ineffability ‘holds’ all beings and images that are subsequently
created. Yet, these beings, images and thoughts are only a fleeting and grasping
sense of what was originally meant, and can only be referred to by other images,
beings and thoughts. There is a space of and for meaning and its creations, and yet
meaning itself is never fully grasped or soaked up when it arrives in ‘concrete’
form. Moreover, the ‘where’ of this space is equally indeterminate; for Plato it is
neither in heaven, nor on earth. And his reference to the space of the dream is a
desperate attempt to capture, metaphorically, its allusive sense. It is this moment of
prevarication in Plato’s reflections on cosmology that also represents Kearney’s
radicalisation of his earlier work. This radicalisation coexists with his own ongoing
critical dialogue with post-structuralism, especially the philosophy of différence, and
post-structural psychoanalysis. For him, contemporary post-structural interpretations
of Plato’s reflections on khora represent possible, yet problematic avenues for
reworking the theme of the ineffably immutable that stands on the edge of
understanding. For Derrida and Caputo the image of khora is wholly other –
radicalised différence – and as such is an abyssal indifference to every determination
that falls short of words, and is, hence, non-metaphorisable. It is archaic, formless
and nameless. There is no possible redemption here either; deconstruction resists a
move towards theology because such a move would, for Caputo at least, represent a
closure of possibilities. Kearney argues that because deconstruction lands, ultimately,
on this abyssal indifference to every determination, its only result is not only a
230 In search of transcendence
non-committal prevarication, but more importantly, a position that remains com-
pletely outside the gesture towards and claims of human suffering. Kearney’s unease
with deconstruction’s indifference to suffering is matched by another unease that goes
to the heart of his own project. His critique also revolves around their celebration of
an endless desert non-place of absolute formless, of absolute aloneness, and where
meaning, while created, can never take shape and arrive. Kearney develops a
threefold response to Derrida’s and, especially Caputo’s claims regarding khora
(Kearney, 2002). As implied in the above remarks, for him, there is nothing to be
celebrated or quietistically given, because in such a location and condition, one
cannot feel or think towards anything, especially towards another or oneself.
Moreover, for him, both Derrida and Caputo, in their concealed ontology, establish
a caricatural distinction between a phonocentric tradition of God/fusion/union/
presence/essence and its deconstructive other of khora and difference/writing/
pharmakon. Third, and in contrast to this caricatural distinction, khora is posited
as a space of possibilities, or in his terms the space of the possible God. Kearney’s
move to a hermeneutics of God, as against the shortcomings of deconstruction
represents an attempt to deploy this image of archaic space as a hermeneutics of
religiosity portrayed as a relationship, and not as a mergence with God, the result
of which is a singularity. This aspect underpins his notion of the narrative imagi-
nation, as in this formulation spatiality becomes sui generis a space of possible
narrative encounters with others, and with God.
20 Rather than language, music in its polyvocality, independent and interdependent
harmonies and dissonances, especially its dissonances and ‘mood-values’ that unite
inner and outer life, may be the paradigm for the spatiality of intersubjectivity. In
other words, music can be viewed as a modality through which creativity and
sociability can be explored.
21 As will be explored in Chapter 14, love is the paradigm for the surprise and
uniqueness of intersubjectivity, for in love one ‘falls’ towards another in all of her/
his singularity and uniqueness. It can be and often is a space of closure.
14 The erotic imaginary, autonomy
and modernity

Love’s owl of Minerva

Modernity holds out both a promise and a loss for love. The promise is contained
in modernity’s horizon of freedom, a horizon from which love can be viewed
as a movement in the social relations of intimacy from singular or mutual
enslavement to mutual autonomy. From the position of love’s loss, there is a
perception that in the modernity of this fin de siècle love is in deep crisis, along
with all other forms of associations that humans establish with each other and
with nature. Cultural images of love, or at least of intimate life, emphasise
broken marriages, unhappy and temporary heterosexual and homosexual
relationships, emotional dysfunction or collapse, loneliness and despair. Left
to themselves, the men and women who inhabit the sphere of intimacy appear to
be bereft of the necessary emotional resources that enable them to come
together for any length of time. The contemporary experience is, thus, not of
love. Love is the catch-all phrase for relationships bereft of love, or of solitary
individuals who mourn love’s loss, often in the inarticulable void of grief.
There is another side that dovetails with this apparent sorry story and
experience about love – the side through which love is culturally understood
and represented. It is assumed that prior to the contemporary predicament,
the subject’s experience of love was located in a language or an emotional culture
of love that preconditioned and gave meaning to the experience of love in a way
which ensured that this experience could be commonly understood and
mutually shared. It is assumed that this culture of love has either died from
exhaustion through overuse, or has been commodified and commercialised to
the extent that its meaning has been thinned to the four-lined rhyme of a St
Valentine’s card. Love is celebrated en masse, not as an event, but as a
What emerges in this portrayal is a double-sided picture that, from the side
of subjects, paints a portrait of emptiness and grief, and from the side of
culture paints a landscape of one-dimensional forms in tones that glide into
one another. Love’s owl of Minerva has spread its wings at the fall of dusk,
that is, at the end of love’s long day. The night, as the conventionally under-
stood time for love, now brings solitude filled only with unfulfillable longing.
232 In search of transcendence
Bereft of significant meaning and experience, erotic love in the third millennium
and in the shadow of the second one, is now a stranger. In other words, the
‘experience’ of love has no great points of reference or orientation under
which it can be gathered and conveyed as a culturally shared, reproducible and
thus ongoing experience (D’Arcy, 1954; de Rougemont, 1983; Lewis, 1990;
Bauman, 2010). It is a shallow, mobile culture and experience, and the suffering
that it creates is treated as a pathology by professionalised therapeutic experts
(Johnson, 2010: 117‒132).1
However, this reading of the formation of modern love, and the image of
modernity that stands behind it, short circuits a more complex set of theoretical
and historical reflections concerning the status of love, the forms of association
it refers to, and the long history of its transformation. In its long dureé,
though, the occidental culture of love was neither continuous nor homo-
genous. It is more accurate to view this culture as a field in which at least five
interpretations of love competed and coalesced. These cultures of love were
(or are) the Platonic‒erotic, the philial, the Christian‒agapaic, the medieval
courtly and the modern‒romantic. When in the West one speaks of love as a
cultural form, it is usually the conjunction and association of the Platonic, the
medieval courtly and the Romantic that is referred to under the more general
term of the Eros tradition. It is this tradition and its more modern Romantic
current that the above set of images lean on, and still speak to us, even as a
series of echoes.
Before interrogating the problem of love in modernity and the images that
abound in this opening narrative, let us begin by looking at what I will term
the erotic imaginary, a particular dimension of the internal life of the subject
as he or she moves to embrace the possibility of the other.

The erotic imaginary and its forms of intimate sociability

Love is an active state. According to Simmel, for example, the subject imputes
love and the subject brings ‘the other’ into love. In other words, this movement
takes the form of two dynamics – an innerly creating one, and an externally
directing one. In terms of love’s imputing innerliness, Simmel takes as his
point of reference Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason in which Kant argues that
there is an internal transcendental capacity through which the diversity of
empirical experiences is synthesised according to the rules of the faculty of
understanding. Simmel bypasses the idea of reason, but utilises the Kantian
idea of a priori synthesis. According to him, it is the capacity for synthesis
that makes love active. Erotic love is the activity of synthesis itself, of the
reorganisation of these two diverse elements into a ‘homogenous erotic fact’
around which other diverse feelings, emotions and sensations can be linked and
united under its very name (Simmel, 1984: 157). Erotic love cannot be analysed
in terms of these elements; only in terms of the activity of the synthesis. The
synthesis gives rise to the attitude of love, and it is this aspect that is common
to all of the elements.
The erotic imaginary, autonomy, modernity 233
This means that for Simmel love cannot be reduced to logic or reason. One
cannot give reasons for being in love; nor can the principles of reason or
rationality explain what love is. Love cannot be viewed as deriving from ends
or purposes. It is not goal directed behaviour, and thus using another for one’s
own purpose is anything but love. Love cannot be based on a naturalistic
economy of the drives in which it is reduced to libidinal urges and the pursuit
of sexually directed outcomes. Nor can love be reduced to or derived from the
principles of practical reason with its emphasis on the good, whether this
occurs in the Platonic, the Christian or the Kantian traditions. According to
Simmel, erotic love cannot be viewed as coming under the auspices of norm-
oriented behaviour, that is, behaviour geared to social ideals and the criterion
of the ought and the good. Erotic love is not a moral maxim.
Although this is as far as Simmel gets in his discussion on the constitution
of erotic love, a discussion he leaves far too abruptly, it posits that love is an
outer-directed synthesising activity, created by a subject who initiates his or
her love. Love is viewed in its own terms. However, it remains unclear in
Simmel’s account what initiates the outward directing synthesising activity. If,
for him in his Kantianism, love is the synthesis of sentiment and sensuality
and yet cannot fall under the faculty of reason, this begs the question as to
what in the human subject does the creating and synthesising of the all-too-human
condition of love.
In Kant’s work, although not in Simmel’s, there is the suggestion of a
non-reasoning force that both creates and synthesises, a force he posits in
transcendental terms. Kant terms this non-reasoning force the faculty of the
imagination, and it is this that points towards the creative interiority of the
human being. In his reflections on the productive imagination Kant moves
beyond the idea that the imagination is empirically formed to one in which
images become possible as an a priori creation. In other words, Kant posits a
dynamic, productive imagination as ‘the faculty of representing in intuition
an object that is not itself present’ (Kant, 1978b: 165). Kant’s notion of the
productive imagination suggests that love is an active creation, the origin of
which resides in the creative imagination.2 This is in contrast to Simmel who
views it as an active a priori synthesis that shares homologous structural affinities
with reason.
Castoriadis’s work represents a radicalisation of Kant’s basic insight
regarding the creative activity of the productive imagination. For Castoriadis,
the interior world of the human being – its psyche – exists, ontologically speaking,
in a state of ongoing representational activity that knows neither space, time,
logic nor symbolic order. In this sense it is a world unto its own, an ‘unlimited
and unstable flux, a representational spontaneity’ that created meaning out of
itself, for itself (Castoriadis, 1997c: 151). For him, the representational pleasure
of the radical imagination takes over from organ pleasure and becomes the
defining characteristic of the human animal. Moreover, at this level, the psyche is
indifferent to what is created and what form it takes. Throughout his work,
Castoriadis is at pains to emphasise and draw out this primary dysfunctional
234 In search of transcendence
aspect of the human animal. The power of the creative flux also indicates the
imagination’s irreducibility to a category of either aesthetic creation, or functional
psychological organisation.
Nonetheless, unless the psyche remains closed (or wishes to remain so, as is
the case of psychosis), the world of the social enters it as a coextensive condition.
In other words, with the social world entering it, the subject thus enters a world
with others, and one in which common, shared understandings might be
possible. The coextensivity of the world of the social in the life of the subject
constitutes the breaking up of the enclosed, autistic world of the psyche,
where meaning creation is now given the representational coherence necessary
for life in society. For Castoriadis, this break-up or pulverisation of the psyche
represents the necessary alteration in the history of the subject (Castoriadis,
1997c: 201, 300–329).
To be sure, Castoriadis emphasises the break-up of the imaginary core of
the psyche in terms of the processes of initial socialisation, and the creation of
possibilities for political autonomy. However, the creation of love is also
another possibility, as it is indicative of another kind of fracturing – one that
involves not simply others, but an other who is viewed with particularity and
intensity. This fracturing is also different from narcissistic self-alteration
(Zaretsky, 2010). The self-alteration of the psyche through love entails that an
other has become significant for it. The move towards the other in terms of
an outwardly directed imaginary self-alteration means that the other becomes
significant for the self beyond itself. This movement is a very specific creative
and productive dimension of the human imagination that pushes outward
(Castoriadis, 1997c: 207). The psyche’s creation of loving significance towards
another also entails that it is an open question as to who the other may be,
and how, erotically, it may be expressed because it is a creation ex nihilo and
does not belong to a natural economy and is indeterminate.
The openness that love creates needs to be concretised in real or potentially
real terms as a relationship between lover and beloved. Hegel, for one, uses
the experience of love as an ideal type in order to establish the dialectic of
openness in relational terms. Hegel’s image of love is one in which the self-
generating and creating imagination is located in the specific social space of
intimacy in a way that not so much transposes the imaginary force, but
transforms it to recognise otherness. As such it becomes its own truth (Hegel,
1983: 101; Rundell, 2001: 74–81).
If love as a relational form is established at all, each participant brings his
or her own particularity to the specific social space of intimacy. Intimate
sociability begins from a position of tension and incommensurability between
social actors. From this perspective, love is a form of improbable relating that
attempts to constitute an intimate space and establish a very specific type of
intensive social relation (Simmel, 1984: 164; Luhmann, 1987).
The beloved is a subject who exists outside the lover’s imaginary life. He or she
can say ‘yes’, ‘no’, or ‘maybe’, the results of which can be joy and exhilaration,
hurt and untold suffering, or confusion and despair. The concretisation of
The erotic imaginary, autonomy, modernity 235
love – like love itself – cannot be taken for granted. As such, when two people
become lovers they cross a fundamental bridge. Up until this point they are
unknown to each other. They are strangers. By so crossing this bridge, they
embrace not only their strangeness to one another but also their mutual
strangeness as to one another’s imaginings, dispositions, habits and needs,
notwithstanding social conditions and arrangements that attempt to gloss
these over and minimise them. This mutual strangeness is even more acute
when the boundary is crossed in settings that are either forbidden or com-
pletely unknown. This is especially the case in the meta-narratives of Tristan
and Isolde and Romeo and Juliet, for example, where love is also a mis-
communication or a series of misunderstandings that cannot, in this context,
be ‘normalised’. Hence, it is not only the recognition of otherness that is
crucial here, but also the recognition of the difference that the other brings to
it, a difference that is external and remains so.
Furthermore, the relation of love between two people presupposes a
dimension of exclusivity or particularity, in the sense that the love relation
becomes the point of reference. This exclusivity may generate an inequality on
the part of those who are excluded from this relation who may express them-
selves through an emotional economy of envy and resentment (Hegel, 1983:
105). Creating love entails that the open-endedness of this type of meaning
making is always in danger. Subjects in love exist in a field of tensions
between closure and openness, success or failure, familiarity and strangeness,
inclusivity and exclusivity. This is what makes love so unstable.
Love – or what now can be termed the erotic imaginary – is a creation of
an imaginary life that synthesises sexual desire and direction, intense feelings
and emotions, bestows meaning and creates a relation in terms of the specificity
of otherness. Moreover, this loving specificity is created as an outward movement
beyond the singularity of the enclosed imagination. Love is neither impersonal
nor detached, but is an involvement with the uniqueness of the other, the
other as a unique person. In this sense, love is indicative of a particular
opening of the psyche and a particular opening to another. The important point
about love is that it is an externalising mediation of a specific world relation that
forces the self to give up its dream of independence (Hegel, 1983: 107).
In the context of a modulated and pluralised state of different aspects of
the human condition, all of which stand in tension with one another, the erotic
imaginary creates a synthesis through which they can be brought together and
interpreted. Intimate sociability becomes the site in which sexuality, bestowal,
sensuousness, passion and care for the other or agape are aligned and
expressed in specific ways under the umbrella of the erotic imaginary. Each
aspect brings different dimensions to this space, dimensions that have been
variously emphasised and stylised in each of the different cultural traditions
of love. Sensuousness is the capacity of human beings to enjoy one another
through the immediacy of the senses, that is, to reside in its kingdom through the
erotic cultivation of touch, taste, smell, sight, and hearing in either immediate or
mediated ways (Singer, 1984/1987, vol. 3: 376). Passion is different from
236 In search of transcendence
sensuousness in that its own power is to cause those in love to yearn for one
another, to crave each other’s presence, and to express this yearning in explicit
or symbolic terms in art, literature or music, for example. At both of their
extremes, one can either be totally consumed by erotic love, or starved because
of its absence (Singer, 1984/1987, vol. 3: 376). However, neither sexual desire
nor amorous emotion can account for the moment at which attraction and
attachment entails self-subsumption. A particular regard emerges, which
concerns the benevolent welfare of the other person, and is placed under the
umbrella of the erotic imagination. This benevolent welfare is often altruistic,
compassionate, non-possessive and self-sacrificial, and in a different tradition
and language is termed care or caritas (Singer, 1984/1987, vol. 3: 375). In
other words, it involves the regard of care towards the other, and enables the
subsumption of dissatisfaction.
Moreover, the erotic imaginary and its site of intimate sociability also creates
its own temporal horizons; all or none of which may sit well with one another
as they combine life’s finitude with the infinitude of love. Those narratives,
which emphasise love’s disruptive, libidinous and sensuous dimensions, signify,
often to the point of idealisation, love’s first temporal horizon – falling in
love. The paradigmatic works of the occidental Eros tradition such as Tristan
and Isolde, Romeo and Juliet, and The Sorrows of Young Werther concentrate
on love’s first temporal horizon, its episodic, volcanic and disruptive dimensions
that loosen passion and even madness from reason. This is what gives love its
great drama.
Nonetheless, two other quite different and independent temporal horizons
of the erotic imaginary may or may not become interdependent with its
ecstatic dimension. These other temporal horizons may be termed, following
Singer’s work, ‘being-in-love’ and ‘staying-in-love’ (Singer, 1984/1987, vol. 3:
383–389). ‘Being-in-love’ reunites and even reintegrates the extra-temporal
dimension of the erotic imaginary with the rhythm of everyday life and the
forms of sociability through which it is also constituted. ‘Staying-in-love’ may
well be termed the long dureé of a life travelled together, and may involve not
only other aspects of the life cycle, for example bearing and raising children
and care in old age, but also the whole range of emotional economies from
humour, joy, delight and pride, to anger, anxiety and displeasure. Here it
requires endurance, patience, forbearance, hopefully wisdom and quietude,
and may be accompanied by another love, that of friendship or philial love.
Moreover, historically, it has not always been part of the world of intimate
sociability, only the household (Singer, 1984/1987 vol. 3: 383, 386–387).
Singer neither mentions nor considers another, fourth condition of love that
is as equally tumultuous as the first, but indicates the cruel finality of the
temporal horizon of love. This fourth condition is the dissolution of love,
which can occur through betrayal, exhaustion, or because it has not been, and
never will be reciprocated. It is here that broken hearts reside – sometimes
forever – and where much of the literature, poetry and music drama is also
concentrated, as it is for the first eruptive moment.
The erotic imaginary, autonomy, modernity 237
From this perspective of the difficult sociality of love the erotic imaginary is
articulated within a modulated, pluralised field of intimate intersubjectivity in
which its delights and dramas range across both the nature and experience of
its specific sociability, as well as its imagining economy. Thus far, then, love –
or the erotic imaginary – has entailed a double experience – it is a particular
imaginary state with its own form of intensification, and a particular form of
intersubjectivity with its own modulations and temporal rhythms for those
subjects who are and may remain in love.

The cultural complex of modern love

Creating love may or may not be successful. Initiating or consolidating intimate
sociability may or may not occur. Communicating this eroticised state and inter-
acting in a way that is mutually understood has to be solved in order for love to
be realised and to blossom. The problem is solved when eroticised communica-
tion and interaction – the ‘yes’, the ‘no’, the ‘maybe’ – make a particular topic
that can be shared, often ritually, by the participants. Love requires historically
specific social creations or social imaginaries so that the emotions, actions and
experiences of love are socially communicable (Bergmann, 1987; Castoriadis,
1987). This also entails that these social or cultural articulations of love become
increasingly differentiated, emotionally and culturally from other domains,
languages and styles of life. For example, historically, the erotic imaginary and its
site of intimate sociability became differentiated from the warrior style of life
with its emotional economy of violence, the world of the household with its
obligations towards the life cycle, and the citizen style of life with its emotional
economy of temperance, notwithstanding the intersections between them.
In other words, the erotic imaginary once it was instituted as a social imaginary
signification, became a cultural pattern of meaning and a social site with its
own practices through which specific patterns of intimate and amorous inter-
actions between social actors could be meaningfully articulated and conveyed.
At the level of culture, the erotic imaginary became institutionalised as the
specific social imaginary for eroticised sociability. As such, those who parti-
cipate in the culturally instituted erotic imaginary historically create and
release a cultural surplus, for example, in the form of lyric poetry, love letters
and love songs (Norton and Kille, 1971; Bergmann, 1987).
One of the contextual features for the development of the erotic social
imaginary in modernity is a generalised transformation from stratified societal
differentiation to functional social differentiation. In this particular reading,
function rather than rank defines social location and each social function
becomes more complex and differentiated from one another. As each becomes
an autonomous sphere differentiated from others and with its own code or form
of understanding, it has to learn to solve problems that it, itself, confronts
(Luhmann, 1987: 1–7).
The open nature of modernity as a social form that contests and dismantles
older bounded social contexts also meant that the erotic imaginary, too,
238 In search of transcendence
becomes freed from traditional customary arrangements. The modern erotic
imaginary initially leaned on and then supplanted the Platonic‒Christian
tensions and distinctions between body and soul, this- and other-worldly
existences. It can also be seen as a parallel development to the chivalric‒Tristan
version of courtly love with its knightly idealisation of the lady. The modern
erotic imaginary became a complex and tension-ridden field, especially as it
became instituted as a social imaginary. Three aspects emerge as the significant
dimensions of the modern erotic imaginary: the notion of autonomous sub-
jectivity; an expressive dimension, which concentrates on an anthropology of
feelings and emotions; and love as an engrossing unity, which has been inter-
preted as an impassioned combination of love and sexual desire in marriage. In
this latter context there is an internal tension between images of mergence and
separateness, a tension that is at the core of interpretive conflicts concerning the
nature of the modern erotic imaginary.
A tension emerged within the modern erotic social imaginary around two
images of subjectivity that it deployed: the autonomous and the expressive.
Both deployed the image of autonomy articulated by the Enlightenment, and
summed up by Kant in his famous dictum ‘to have the courage to use your
own understanding’ (Kant, 1991: 54). The modern erotic imaginary transposes
Kant’s dictum into ‘have courage to create one’s own love’. The autonomous
and the aesthetic‒expressive currents constructed subjects, as well as humankind
generally, as being released from living with metaphysically construed social,
moral and ethical constraints. The limit is thus viewed as being self-constituting
and self-imposed, if imposed at all. Limits were open to constant challenge,
conflict and change, but only from the inside (Taylor, 1975: 3–50).
It was one that was also fraught with danger, though. The modern erotic
imaginary enabled social actors to break social contexts and boundaries, as
the older forms of the erotic imaginary did before it. ‘Falling in love’ is an
explosive, disruptive and ecstatic state that leaves the lovers often suspended
outside time, outside the rhythms, demands and constraints of everyday life.
The difference between falling in love within the courtly tradition and the
modern one was that the latter required no magic spells and potions to unleash
its form of enchantment. Yet, this history of the autonomisation of erotic love is
longer than the Romantic tradition might suggest, and is parallel to that of the
courtly tradition. The love between Abelard and Heloise is trangressive in a dif-
ferent way from that of the fictionalised love between Tristan and Isolde told by
both Béroul and Gottfried von Strasbourg (Ferrante, 1973; Béroul, 1998; Wailes,
2001).3 In both the medieval and courtly versions, the forbidden love that occurs
between Tristan and Isolde required magic as the medium for it to be initiated.
Love’s contingent dynamic through which Tristan and Isolde transgressed the
codes of chivalry and rank belonged to a transcendent world beyond the lovers
themselves. Once there was retribution, in this case through death, the rhythm
and order of the world was restored, love was again subordinated to custom.
In contrast, and notwithstanding the retributive justice meted out to Abelard,
the love between Abelard and Heloise required no magic and belonged to
The erotic imaginary, autonomy, modernity 239
their own erotic imaginings and their self-understanding, an understanding
articulated in what was to become their paradigmatic letters (Radice and
Clanchy, 1974). In La Nouvelle Héloïse (1968) Rousseau fictionalises their
erotic dialogue again in letter form, a form that becomes synonymous with
self-declaration and thus self-formation. Rousseau, thus, integrated the early
modern Renaissance experience of Abelard and Heloise into the vocabulary
of modernity itself. The autonomous self in the form of Rousseau’s Saint Preux
created and unleashed it. So did the new Julie. Love, autonomy, creativity and a
restlessness, which broke limits and went beyond them, went hand in hand
(Rousseau, 1968; Burkart, 2010).4 In other words, love was a radicalised
opening, not only at the level of the psyche, but also at the level of the
cultural and social possibilities of a modernity that originates in the twelfth
and thirteenth centuries. Against this background, modern eroticised autonomy
made love a this-worldly possibility, and eventually became both proto-
democratic and proto-feminist (Vogel, 1986; Singer, 1984/1987, vol. 2: 22–23;
Johnson, 1995). Love’s excitement broke social rules and contexts as lovers
who viewed themselves as autonomous subjects pursued a love that was often
forbidden because it crossed boundaries anchored in social custom, rank,
vocation, sexual orientation, or even gendered identity.
There is another image of the modern erotic imaginary that is more aligned
to the self-construction and self-understanding of expressivism: the engrossing
self. In this context, the modern erotic imaginary continues the Platonic and
neo-Platonic traditions in which there is a search for purity and complete
satisfaction in interpersonal love that transcends ordinary sexual experience in
a way that enables the lover to embrace the Divine. The modern erotic imaginary
qua expressivist love alters the transcendent moment in a particular way – the
divinity is no longer the reference point, rather the beloved is the one with
whom the lover is engrossed.
For Medieval Christian love, which combined both erotic and agapaic
dimensions, as well as for the Lutheran‒Protestant affirmation of ordinary life
in which marriage was based on friendship, God was still the highest point for
love (Nygren, 1982; Singer, 1984/1987, vol. 2: 296). With the expressivist
emphasis on aesthetic creation erotic love is redefined as a desire for some-
thing unknowable and beyond limits, unconformable and uncontainable to
empirical experience. Love is sublime.
It was, thus, possible for the expressivists to argue that erotic love was the
‘god’ that was to be pursued. The expressivist lover, who is also viewed
synonymously with Romanticism, seeks love itself, which is defined as an
unknown. He or she becomes engrossed in it. As Singer notes, ‘Romantic love
is a search for a new, unknown, infinite alluring but inherently imperfect object
of desire which becomes less and less imperfect as we progressively and success-
fully merge with it’ (Singer, 1984/1987, vol. 2: 295). It is in this sense that love is
blind, not in the courtly sense of being bedazzled, or in the realist sense of
being deluded away from objectivity, but because there is no goodness prior
to love, and therefore nothing prior ‘for it to see or contemplate until it
240 In search of transcendence
creates its own perfections’ (Singer, 1984/1987, vol. 2: 295). Hence, for the
expressivist, engrossed lover the erotic imaginary is the creative experience for
the subject; or to put it slightly differently, Romantic love articulates not
simply aesthetic, but an erotically expressive experience into which one throws
oneself. It is this that gives to it its secular‒sacred power. It is through this
that the social actor interprets his or her ultimate autonomy.
As indicated, this expressivist image of being engrossed takes place in a
non-religious context. It occurs in a combination of two worlds that had
hitherto stood in tension with one another – the intimate sphere, which is
re-socialised, and the sphere of domesticity and everyday life. It is assumed
that in the family they are united. It is also assumed that in the family form
selfhood, love and life are united in an engrossing manner, and the vicissi-
tudes of the world-in-general are held at bay (Vogel, 1986). This conjunction
of intimacy and domesticity means, though, that there is a double experience
of both re-sacralisation and secularisation. The origin of the modern intensi-
fication of the family belongs here as it dovetails with the creation and inter-
pretation of the erotic imaginary in its expressive form. Love-as-engrossment
attempted to solve, at the level of society, the double-sided tension between
re-sacralisation and secularisation that is constitutive of the intensified intimate
domesticity, one of the hallmarks of modernity. In the age of the modern
differentiation of social imaginaries, the experience of love, in contrast to
medieval culture where marriage, sex, and love remained relatively differ-
entiated, is paradoxically an experience of dedifferentiation (Mitterauer and
Sieder, 1982: 71–92; Luhmann, 1986).5
For Romantic expressivism, at least, marriage, love and sexual life – as
metaphors for union – coexist as the concrete expressions of the more abstract
condition of a yearning for spiritual involvement, of being engrossed in love.
Moreover, this engrossed existence with another also represents the unification
of those dimensions of life which modern rationalism had supposedly separated:
reason and imagination, thought and feeling, body and matter, nature and
subjectivity. The man and the woman sanctified in marriage form the unifica-
tion of autonomy and Romantic expressivism. The completeness is love itself
that will perfect all imperfections and complement all deficiencies (Shelley,
1927: 578; Singer, 1984/1987, vol. 2: 288, 411–427).
From a dimension of relative encirclement and enclosure, which this
engrossed condition represents, the modern erotic imaginary is more than an
intense erotic association between autonomous subjects. It is an engrossed
blending together of loved and beloved, within a particular social setting, the
family. In other words, engrossed Romantic‒expressivist love can be viewed as
an intense sociality of the ‘being-in-love’ type, which is constituted and
expressed in an ecstatic simultaneous state of self-suspension and involvement
in another outside oneself, which is supposed to endure across all of the
temporal horizons of love, and within only one social sphere. However, this
intense sociality can occur to the point where all dissimilarity is lost, and can
undermine the condition of love as a relational form. Intense sociality can be
The erotic imaginary, autonomy, modernity 241
viewed as either intensely pleasurable – the emphasis on the combination of
love, sexuality and marriage in expressivism‒Romanticism’s renewed utopic
eroticism – or intensely painful because it is experienced as an entrapment, or
a loss of, and violence towards, the self. In this way, erotic, engrossed expres-
sivism overrides and annihilates the principle of autonomous selfhood, as
Goethe portrayed Werther’s own self-understanding, suffering and suicide
(Goethe, 1989).
These counterpositions of the autonomous and expressivist‒engrossed sub-
jects still linger to fuel the assessment of erotic love in the twenty-first century in
the midst of the structural transformations and changes in life experience that
have occurred in the intimate sphere. The modern erotic social imaginary is
part of a more general cultural shift of modernity and occurs along two inter-
related fronts – one pertaining to the language of erotic love itself, the other to
the recognition of the human being qua subject. The assumed ‘death’ of love
is part of a general shift from metaphysically and transcendentally constituted
world views to post-metaphysical ones constituted by both autonomous and
expressivist‒Romantic cultural currents (Bauman, 2010). As my opening
remarks suggest, this shift has been interpreted from the vantage point of a
pessimism, the genealogy of which has deep roots in the expressivist‒Romantic
tradition. Moreover, these transformations are seen as inseparable from the
family, its intensification, and the development of its modern pathologies of
both mergence and violent separation because of this. This is set against an
historical background of both the devolution of the family as the site for
socialisation and education, moral and legal sanction, protection, and now
leisure, and its emergence as a contested domain for all forms of intimacy.
In the context of a modernity that is pluri-centred, and in which each of its
centres has its own long history, the expressivist‒Romantic claim of reconcilia-
tion in either optimistic or pessimistic terms has been given up. Left with what
Beck and Beck-Gernsheim (1995) suggest is ‘the normal chaos of love’, the
erotic imaginary of a modernity remains at the intersection of solitude, isolation,
sexual intimacy, emotional intensity and everyday life where the family is no
longer a presumed ‘natural’ or historical unit. It is an intersection at which all
of the modalities and temporal horizons of the erotic imaginary are located
and juggled in ways that may or may not combine, especially in marriage and
family life (Blatterer, 2010; M. Markus, 2010). Thus, the modern erotic social
imaginary is a signature tune in which subject formation continues to occur
by being both affirmed and disrupted, especially when the value of autonomy
is at play. It also competes with the other social imaginaries and temporal
horizons of modernity. This also entails that the internally differentiated
temporal horizons of intimate sociability – or times of love – become more
acute. Instead of a love lived across a lifetime, if one also includes parent‒child
relations, there may well be many loves, and many love-times. In the light of
all of this, it is more accurate to speak of post-metaphysical and post-utopic
erotic love, rather than post-erotic love, where both autonomy and relationality
become more, rather than less, pressing.
242 In search of transcendence
This means that the particular tragic drama, which was characteristic of
the grand narratives of the Eros tradition, is now also absent. In our current
modernity, the erotic imaginary is brought into the world of everyday life by
subjects who are initially contingent strangers to one another, and is subject
to all of modernity’s tensions and conditions, to intensification, diremption
and alienation, to autonomisation and democratisation. Notwithstanding its
tension-ridden social condition, the erotic imaginary remains an internal
dimension at the level of the subject. If modernity is an epoch in which there
is a differentiation of cultures, forms of life, and functions, it is also an epoch
in which there is an acute diremption between the worlds of the psyche and
the social‒historical. In between are possibilities. Including those of love.

1 For Danielle, again. This chapter is also a rewritten version of Rundell, 2001: 5–27.
I would like to thank Danielle Petherbridge, John Friedmann and Peter Beilharz for
their comments on earlier drafts of the original essay. These images have a genealogy
that is articulated in de Rougemont’s Love in the Modern World, which becomes a
paradigm for this pessimistic current. See de Rougemont, 1983; see also D’Arcy,
1954; Lewis, 1990; Singer, 1984/1987, vol. 2; Luhmann, 1986. Giddens, 1992, views
the contemporary state of intimacy simply in transactional terms. See also Singer,
1984/1987: vol. 2, 370–372 for a discussion of de Rougemont.
2 Kant does not take the step from a discussion concerning the productive imagination
to that of love. For him, love falls under the umbrella of practical reason.
3 Although Singer (1984/1987, vol. 2) views courtly love as a watershed in the history
of European love and provides some (but not all) of our foundations of the more
romantic notion of love, he criticises de Rougemont, for one, of conflating courtly
and romantic love, and is sceptical about its terminology.
4 To be sure, in Nouvelle Heloise (Rousseau, 1968) constructs another preferred
sociability, that of intimate friendship. Arguably, Friedrich Schlegel’s (Schlegel,
1971) Lucinde also belongs to this current, notwithstanding his own version of the
Romantic‒expressivist paradigm.
5 With the invention of objectivistic forms of knowledge love is viewed, for example,
sociologically as part of the history of the family or psychoanalytically from the
vantage point of the sexual history of the species.
15 Musicality and modernity:
Music as a space of possibilities

Like love, there are very few references to music as both a creative form and a
social phenomenon in the social theoretical tradition, at least in its so-called
classical heritage. Perhaps love with all its shades, and music with all of its
tonal qualities, simply go together, as the two great expressive, yet impossible
media. Perhaps Max Weber, Georg Simmel and Norbert Elias are the exceptions
here, and it is not simply due to what might, illegitimately, be seen as limits
imposed by musical‒technical knowledge. Each of them writes on music and
love – in rationalistic and power-saturated terms (Weber), in anthropological‒
rhythmic terms (Simmel), and in civilisational‒figurational terms (Elias)
(Weber, 1970: 323–359, 1958; Simmel, 1978; Elias, 1983, 1993). As music is
our topic here, I want to suggest that each elides another interpretive possibility
in their writings on music – of theorising music as a spatial form, and one not
only constituted through time or rhythm, and melody. It is not only the space
of performance, of reception, of listening and interpretation that is of concern
here, but also the internal space of the creation, arrangement and voicing of
that space. This spatiality creates what might be termed a specific musico-
reflective space where thinking, feeling and particular moods are created,
performed and interacted with. Before turning to the works of Simmel and
Weber, especially, it is worth making some preliminary remarks on aesthetics
and music more generally.1

Autonomy or tensions?
This chapter explores not so much the struggle for the autonomisation of
aesthetics, in this instance the autonomisation of musical modernity, but more
so the permanent and unresolvable and creative tensions that are part of this
struggle. The autonomy of art as a separate imaginary and practice became a
basis through which moderns could contest traditional aesthetics, terms and
meanings of the sacred, even within the field of the sacred itself, as well as
critique other imaginaries of modernity in the context of forming their own
aesthetic codes and practices. In the context of this double critique and
244 In search of transcendence
engagement a new modern aesthetic sensibility and practice developed, which
was not simply the result of long-term civilising processes and perspectives
(Elias), ideological representation and counter-representation (Marx), purposive
rationalisation (Weber), or an aesthetics that lost its aura only to be formed by
mechanical production and commodification (Benjamin, Adorno). Rather,
and preliminarily, we can denote this new aesthetic space as a creative space
sui generis – like all of the spaces of modernity – but it creates this creativity
in terms of an aesthetic register in which there is an opening towards new
forms, of imagining oneself ‘into a space’ that stands outside the everyday as
well as reflects on it. Everyday life becomes topicalised in a particular way (is
it beautiful? Is it ugly?). This topicalisation cannot be reduced to political
dimensions or critique in the first or last instance. Modern aesthetics is not simply
a space of critique that portrays modern tragedies, alienation, redemption,
reconciliation or hoped-for totality – although it may do all of this.
In the spirit of the notions of differentiation, heterogeneity and tension that
inform this book, aesthetics is a world sui generis. In other words, this differ-
entiation also signals and implies the autonomy of aesthetics, that is, that
aesthetics came to be viewed as an autonomous activity by its practitioners
and recipients alike. From at least the eighteenth century onwards – although
the argument here is that it is earlier – this meant or implied criteria by which
its practices were thought to be able to satisfy. These criteria included an
internally derived notion of creativity, innovation, a break from the past, the
separation of the artist from his/her object, ceaseless activity of the present,
and the idealisation of this autonomy. The autonomisation and idealisation of
the work of art became a point of condensation for a complex of meanings that
cannot be fully understood by simply referring to the medium through which
this work is constructed, or its social context. From an externalist perspective,
autonomy and idealisation meant that the work of art became separated from
life, from context, from tradition, from prejudice. In other words, art became
separated from religion, from the economy, and from the state. This autono-
misation and idealisation amounted to an external liberation from its historical
domination by other spheres such as religion and the church, and the court
and its patronage. It also entailed liberation – or at least a tension-filled rela-
tion rather than subordinated, derivative or ideological-function ones – from
the other imaginaries of modernity. The artwork stood alone (Markus, 2011;
Rundell and Mennell, 1998: 1–38).
The autonomy of modern aesthetics also emphasised internal sources.
Autonomy in aesthetic culture came to mean something quite specific apart
from the emergence of an elite of high cultural producers and practitioners who
lived independently of patronage, existed as independent artists or as wage
earners in companies that produced high culture, both of which were – and
continue to be – dependent on a public of cultural consumers and a market
for culture. It meant the activities that created aesthetic objects, in addition to
being novel or original, were determined solely by internal factors. This
meant that first, the creation of the work of art was the product of internal
Music as a space of possibilities 245
forces that belonged to the artist; that second, the form and content of the
work was determined by these alone, and that third, the creation of the work
of art was an end in itself. This formulation of art meant that it was distinct
from the Aristotelian and Platonic ideals in which art represented an activity
that reached towards perfection, unity and higher ideals. The autonomisation
of art also entailed that fourth, the judgement of the quality of the work of art
belonged to these criteria which were internal to what modern aesthetic
creativity was (Markus, 2011; Rundell, 2000: 13–24).2
Autonomy, then, meant the development of specific ‘codes’, practices and
techniques that became internal to the meaning of what modern aesthetic
referred to. This meaning was developed by its practitioners – artists, composers,
musicians, writers and poets – the recipients of their works, the theoreticians
and philosophers, and in the formation of specialised institutions such as
museums, art galleries, opera houses and concert halls (Luhmann, 1985: 4–26).3
This autonomisation entailed the formation of an internal history of aesthetic
norms, practices and receptions, and thus the development of a catalogue of
canonical works. The notion of the canon itself was the inverse of the con-
tingency of modern aesthetic creativity and its reception. It was an open
question which works of art would endure and which would not or may be
‘rediscovered’. As importantly, it also entailed the internal differentiation
within modern aesthetics itself. Disputes emerged regarding which aesthetic
forms were primary, if any. The theory and practice of a unified conception of
aesthetics was dismantled (Fehér, 1990: 79–94). It is not a world that is con-
stituted as a homogenous universe – rather it is constituted as a world of
incommensurable genres and works – each genre as well as each work of art is
unique and we establish a unique relation with its own uniqueness (Fehér,
1993: 332–333; Heller, 2011).
Autonomisation thus also meant internal contestation – aesthetic norms,
practices and receptions were open to conflicts over the nature of what con-
stituted these norms, practices and receptions. This internal contestation has
continued as is evident in the disputes regarding modernism and post-
modernism. In other words, because of the dynamism and contingency within
all modern imaginaries aesthetics, too, lost a sense of stability, a sense of its
own taken-for-grantedness, beginning arguably in the late Renaissance and
the baroque, thus disrupting the usual historical emphasis given to the eighteenth
However, there is something in addition to the processes of differentiation
and autonomy that modern aesthetics evokes. An aesthetic world also conveys
something that is almost incommunicable, and this incommunicable dimension
is beyond the ‘objective’ life of the world of aesthetics as well as the subjective
stance of the viewer or listener and the work of art itself. It is, for want of a
better term, a transcendent moment. It is a space, a home, a mystery beyond
the everyday and the realms of specialised institutions, politics, power or the
market. It is a space that opens for wonder, mystery, awe, silence as much as
sound. Aesthetics and the space of aesthetic modernity also cannot be
246 In search of transcendence
reduced to the technical innovations that occur within it, even though they
are part of its imaginary.
If aesthetics opens onto mysteries it also opens onto enchantment rather
than only disenchantment in the way that Weber portrayed it. It is an
enchantment in the sense that we are drawn in, held, and find the space
wondrous, even mysterious, even for as long and even after the real-time
experience lasts. We create new relations in this context – not so much with
concrete others, but with works of art with their mysteries and enchantments,
or a particular work of art. The work of art becomes uniquely enchanting for
viewers and listeners. Aesthetics also opens onto the inexplicable aspects of the
human condition and not only ones that are transcendent. These inexplicable
aspects of the human condition often cannot be articulated or narrativised
completely, for example, love, suffering, loss, especially unexpected loss and
grief. The inexplicable aspects often can be orientated through and by the
artwork as much as the recipient, and thus by the relation between them
through imaginings, emotions, feelings, and not only through cognition and
Aesthetics, then, invites us to confront the strangeness and incommunic-
ability of and with works of art, of and with ourselves, of and with other
contingent strangers and the world in general and these confrontations can
create and convey suffering, fear and horror as much as wonder and delight.
Autonomy of art can also be viewed as an expansive aesthetic space – as a
space of possibilities which contingent strangers create and inhabit in terms of
composition, reception, playing, listening and arranging. Aesthetics is also a
space of interaction – of difference, complexity, of harmonies as well as new
Modern aesthetics, or modern works of art including musical ones, thus
carry what appears to be a heavy burden. Do they provide a space for modern
enchanted meaning and experience, or is this meaning illusory, temporary and
only transient?

Harmonies and dissonances, enchantments and transcendences

In answer to this question and drawing mainly on music I will explore aesthetic
modernity through the ideas of harmonies and dissonances, enchantments or
transcendence, the result of which is an increase in chromaticism. Chromaticism
denotes both social and expressive innovation in the history of the aesthetic
and musical imaginations, and I will explore it from two directions – chromatic
dissonance and chromatic contemplation. Chromatic dissonance will be used
to draw out the modern aesthetic imaginary that is constituted in ways that
heighten the sense of polyvocality that cannot be resolved to a harmonic
centre. Chromatic dissonance not only ‘liberates’ music (and aesthetics more
generally) from cosmologically interpreted harmonies, but also allows for a
polyphony and coexistence of independent voices that cannot be resolved, yet
coexist in the same musical space. Chromatic dissonance breaks open the
Music as a space of possibilities 247
relation between the work of art, its meaning and the audience. Musically this
is a relation between the composer, the composition, the players and the listeners
or the audience.
Yet dissonance also paradoxically speaks to another human need for quiet,
where one can imagine something different without interference. Here one
can go further, not only in terms of a simple restfulness, but also in terms of a
dissonance that disrupts, discomforts or disturbs. The aspect of chromatic
contemplation can be viewed as the need for a depth, for a reflection as ‘work
on the self’, its cares and woes, as much as a release from it. Spatially, chromatic
contemplation, once occurring in churches, now also occurs in other archi-
tectural spaces such as, for example, museums, art galleries, concert halls, in
the listening of sound recordings. Its practice is not necessarily a silence or a
withdrawal. It will be argued that contemplation in modernity is ‘secularised’
in post-religious modalities or deportments of increased imaginary creation
and chromatic reflection, which may go misleadingly under the title of intro-
spection or even self-suspension. In this sense, it is neither an abandonment of
subjectivity, but its increase, nor an isolation, but a hermeneutic openness to
the strangeness of oneself, of others and their differences – to chromatic
Aesthetics becomes the principal form where chromatic dissonance and
chromatic contemplation occur in modernity. However, music is especially
difficult to discuss as the other major aesthetic forms are bound up with
‘objective’ form, for example architecture, or ‘representation’ in either visual
or literary terms, for example in painting, sculpture, poetry, drama and literature
including the novel (Jay, 1993).4 Kant, who sets the scene for so much of
social theory as well as continental philosophy, is committed to a view of a
modern aesthetics that belongs to the differentiated condition of modernity.
Modern aesthetics is one of its worlds that has its own autonomous existence
against those of science and politics. Yet, and notwithstanding Kant’s commit-
ment to differentiation, his theorisation of aesthetics more accurately swings
between the three faculties of the understanding, reason and the imagination
(with a philosophy of history standing in the background) with ‘representation’
holding sway.5 For this reason his Critique of Judgement splits into two more
or less unconnected sections – one addressing the problem of the creation of
aesthetic objects, and the second addressing the problem of taste or judge-
ment (Kant, 1987; Rundell, 1994). Within this context, music is sensuousness,
almost animalic. Kant critiques music for its ‘pre-representational’ nature
because it is bound to sense and feeling ‘without thought’. He also critiques
music playing for its noisy unsociability (Kant, 1987: 196–201; 1978: 147).
For Hegel, music can be an embodiment of representation, especially if it
embodies or ‘carries’ world spirit. It can be a bearer of the self-expression of
freedom through or qua beauty. Yet, for him, it is often either ephemeral or
virtuosic when not accompanied by words. It is best allied to innerliness as pure
expressive feeling of/for beauty. Yet poetry for Hegel remains his abiding and
paradigmatic aesthetic form. Kant and Hegel view music as non-representational
248 In search of transcendence
and less an art form than painting, sculpture and literature, especially poetry
and drama (Hegel, 1975). For both Kant and Hegel, it is only concerned with
time (rhythm), harmony and melody and thus they establish a particularly
classical view of modern music that will be later formalised in the work of
Hanslick (Hanslick, 1986). Ultimately, aesthetics, for them, is subordinated to
problems of taste, judgement, or the increasingly reflexive work of Geist
(Hegel) and thus comes under the umbrella of the problem of reason.
The writings of Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche are perhaps the
exception here, and are organised around the distinction between civilisation
and culture, although they move in different directions.
An expression of innerliness qua chromatic musicality is portrayed by
Kierkegaard in Either/Or, vol. 1. Historically this is an important portrayal as
he presents two of the alternative modern subjectivities – the formal‒rational
one and the aesthetic‒expressive, the latter of which is portrayed by him as
the musical‒erotic. In contrast to Kant’s attitude, music is not unsociable
‘noise’ but a tonic that lifts the spirits or more correctly enhances a sense of
life overall. More importantly, music belongs to all of the senses. It uplifts
and penetrates an inner life that has become melancholic either by choice or
in the face of externally derived cares and woes (Kierkegaard, 1971: 40).
Yet the musical‒erotic is more than this. Kierkegaard gives music a privileged
status to convey close, immediate sensuousness. This is more so than language
and its most ‘inner’ sensuous form of poetry that is given precedence by
Romanticism, or at least by the Schlegel’s and Hölderlin. In Kierkegaard’s
view music is before and beyond representation, before or beyond the every-
day temporal horizons in which we are all enmeshed. Music, like sensuous
love – or ‘falling in love’ – is a form of suspension, it is outside of time.
However, for Kierkegaard this (self-) suspension that music conveys is not
necessarily one of quiet restfulness. Taking Mozart’s portrayal of Don Juan as
a paradigm, ‘life’s highest tension’ can only be revealed musically (Kierkegaard,
1971: 133). A narratively portrayed drama would only convey so much and be
over too quickly.

If Don Juan were a drama, then this inner unrest in the situation would
need to be as brief as possible. On the other hand, it is right in opera that
the situation should be prolonged, glorified by every possible exuberance,
which only sounds the wilder, because for the spectators it reverberates
from the abyss over which Don Juan is hovering … Here is the clear
indication of what it means to say that the essence of Don Juan is music.
He reveals himself to us in music, he expands in a world of sound.
(Kierkegaard, 1971: 133–134)

Schopenhauer, more so than Kierkegaard, presents an image of innerliness qua

musicality in a more strictly transcendental register because of his Kantianism.
But there is a twist here. In a similar vein to Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer’s
view of music straddles the sensuous and the non-sensuous, although with a
Music as a space of possibilities 249
greater emphasis on the latter. Music certainly stares into an abyss – or more
correctly allows us to stare into it – but the sensuous intensity of this moment is
transcended through ‘this wonderful art’ (Schopenhauer, 1969, vol. 2: 447). For
Schopenhauer the world of representation, of noumenal life is fetid, tortured
and beset by suffering which we both recognise and live. Yet, for him, this life
of suffering should be left behind, transcended. Schopenhauer’s non-religious
positioning of the transcendental posits music as one of its paradigms.
Tension and dissonance belong to the world of the everyday, for Scho-
penhauer. Yet in Schopenhauer’s hands music is also a transcendental meta-
physics of harmony based on the purported naturalness of the diatonic chord
(tonic, third, fifth, octave). However, its naturalness is misleading; it is the will
itself (Schopenhauer’s own transposition of Kant’s transcendental ‘X’) and as
such is beyond representation. As Schopenhauer notes, ‘music as such knows only
tones or notes, not the causes that produce them’ (Schopenhauer, 1969, vol. 2:
448). Rather than simply a causal, mechanical explanation for the production of
sound, and even in spite of his mathematical speculations, Schopenhauer
posits a metaphysical one based on the distinction between dissonance and
harmony. Dissonance belongs to the irrationality, suffering and pain of the
world, while harmony becomes the ‘image’, really sound of and for ‘the satis-
faction of the will’ (Schopenhauer, 1969, vol. 2: 451). The world itself may be
discordant, but that world when conveyed in sound cannot wound or torment as
it is removed or abstracted from, and more importantly transposed into an act of
reconciliation. Discordance, which makes us uneasy and is indicated by the
introduction of the seventh, is a moment to be later resolved towards the tonic.
The constant discord and reconciliation of music’s tonal properties indicates
the forming of inner desires and their complete satisfaction. As Schopenhauer
goes on to say:

Music consists generally in a constant succession of chords more or less

disquieting, i.e. of chords exciting desire, with chords more or less quieting
and satisfying, just as life of the heart (the will) is a constant succession
of greater and lesser disquietude through desire or fear with composure
just as varied … In fact in the whole of music there are only two funda-
mental chords, the dissonant chord of the seventh, and the harmonious
triad … This is precisely in keeping with the fact that there are for the
will at bottom only dissatisfaction and satisfaction, however many and
varied the forms in which these are presented may be. And just as there
are two universal and fundamental moods of the mind, serenity or at any
rate vigour, and sadness, or even anguish, so music has two general keys,
the major and the minor corresponding to these moods, and it must always
be found in one or the other.
(Schopenhauer, 1969, vol. 2: 456)

Words are music’s foreign territory and they convey a lesser known, less
translatable, less vertical ‘world’ than a purely musical one. Again taking
250 In search of transcendence
opera as his paradigmatic musical form for his philosophical reflections,
Schopenhauer argues that instead of a combined unitary relation between music,
words and action (whether dramatic or comedic) there is a necessary metaphy-
sically derived separation between these aspects. Music conveys the ‘deep and
serious significance’ of our existence (Schopenhauer, 1969, vol. 2: 450).
Wagner takes up and explores this Schopenhaurian transcendental sense in
his later post-Feuerbachian works, for example in his opera Tristan and
Isolde. In addition to being an exercise in Gesamstkunstwerk (Wagner’s total
work of art paradigm that recombines not only allegorical and acousmatic
dimensions, but all aesthetic genres, especially drama, against the grain of
Schopenhauer’s recommendation) Wagner experiments with inner depth and
the ‘vertical’ in two important ways. For example, he immerses Tristan and
Isolde (and us, his audience) in the unfathomable nature of their unforgiving
love and suspends them in it through the use of rich and dense chromatic
suspensions, for example in the famous Tristan chord. Yet he also releases
them from the depth of their suffering into a transcendentally construed
‘beyond’, which may not be interpreted religiously.6
Following Schopenhauer’s footsteps – initially with enthusiasm and then with
great hostility – Nietzsche works from within the tension of a musico-aesthetic
sensibility, especially in relation to the autonomy of art thesis qua the emanci-
pation of music from words. His hostility comes to full rest in his interpretation
of Wagner’s music, again after an initial ‘misunderstood’, fervent admiration.
In the Birth of Tragedy Wagner’s music is portrayed as Dionysian, full of life.
In his later reassessments in ‘Nietzsche Contra Wagner’ and ‘The Case of
Wagner’, Nietzsche portrays Wagner’s music as impoverished and stultifying.
It dampens life, makes it sick with tonal and dramatic excess.

Wagner’s art is sick … precisely because nothing is more modern than

this total sickness, this lateness and over-excitement of the nervous
mechanism, Wagner is the modern artist par excellent, the Cagliostro of
modernity. In his art all that the modern world requires most urgently is
mixed in the most seductive manner; the three great stimulata of the
exhausted – the brutal, the artificial, and the innocent (idiotic).
(Nietzsche, 2000: 622)

Above all, Wagner’s music is anti-Enlightenment in the sense that it is

tyrannical, domineering and totalising. Wagner controls interpretation and in
so doing seduces and controls the listeners and thus life itself. As Nietzsche

one leaves oneself at home when one goes to Bayreuth; one renounces the
right to one’s own tongue and choice, to one’s taste, even to one’s courage
as one has it and exercises it between one’s own four walls against both
God and world.
(Nietzsche, 1982: 665; Nietzsche, 1968: 437, aphorism 827)
Music as a space of possibilities 251
What appear as Nietzsche’s personal assessments are informed by his
anthropologically inspired philosophy of life where culture is pitted against
civilisation and where music has a paradigmatic place in this battlefield.
Nietzsche struggles with the distinction and/or relation of music to words and
feelings, as well as music as a distinct form that should be allied to culture.7
In Nietzsche’s view Beethoven’s compositions represent musical autonomy,
while Wagner’s represent music that relies on extra-musical criteria – morality,
words, poetry and pictures, and is too ‘civilizational’. ‘Fundamentally, even
Wagner’s music is still literature, no less than the whole of French Romanticism;
the charm of exoticism (strange times, customs, passions, exercised on senti-
mental ‘stay-at-home places’) (Nietzsche, 1968: 437–438 aphorism 829; cf.
1968: 440–441, aphorism 838). Rather than releasing music from language
and drama, Wagner’s music immeasurably enmeshes it further, making it
indistinguishable from both. This is not simply a question of ‘representation’
for Nietzsche, but of morality. For Nietzsche, music should be beyond good
and evil, beyond morals, representation, words, civilisation – and it is this that
he struggles with in terms of music as culture. While music is for itself, from his
own value position it is also for life. Music should be life-affirming and for this
reason he also chooses the works of Bizet and Offenbach over Wagner and even
Beethoven. Bizet’s work, especially Carmen, is ‘Mediterranean’ for Nietzsche; it
has an overpowering, selfish lust for life. More importantly, Bizet respects the
listener, the music and the musician (Nietzsche, 2000: 613–15, aphorisms 1
and 2). Offenbach’s music, like Bizet’s is ‘free-high-spirited, with a little sardonic
grin, but bright, clever, almost to the power of banality (‒ and he does not use
makeup –) and without the mignardise [affectation] of morbid or blond-Viennese
sensuality’ (Nietzsche, 1968: 439, aphorism 833).
Both at the beginning of his work and at the tragic end of it, Nietzsche
pronounces, against civilisational aesthetics, that music is the only cultural
form that asserts and upholds his life-affirming version of autonomy:
‘[T]heatre should not lord it over the arts; that the actor should not seduce
those who are authentic; that music should not become an art of lying’
(Nietzsche, 2000: 636).
The movement towards the autonomy of music and its capacity for an
unsayable sound world that resists transparency, a world in which there are
‘riddles and iridescent uncertainties’ to paraphrase Nietzsche (Nietzsche,
1982: 683), is also evoked by Jankélévitch nearly a century later by way of
his notion of charm. In Jankélévitch’s hands charm is the captivating and
enthralling delight and grace of music that enchants. In a way that also has
some affinities with the Durkheimian notion of the sacred, ‘charm’ is simple;
it should not be complicated by thinking.8 It is not a cognitive space.
Jankélévitch argues in his Music and the Ineffable that music is ‘neither a
“language” nor an instrumental means to convey concepts, nor a utilitarian
mode of expression’ (Jankélévitch, 2003: 62). Jankélévitch posits his notion
of charm to evoke the sense that there are ‘infinite and indeterminable
things to be said’, yet cannot be said, or fully explained and thus remain
252 In search of transcendence
mysterious (Jankélévitch, 2003: 72). Charm has strong affinities to the
notion and experience of enchantment and being enchanted by something
ethereal or more properly ineffable. For Jankélévitch this enchantment or
charm is something quite different from being bewitched, spellbound,
intoxicated, hypnotised, yet deceived, deranged and immobilised (Janké-
lévitch, 2003: 127). Enchantment is something else entirely. As he goes
onto say:

But if we agree, in the end, that we are dealing with a mystery and not a
material secret, with a Charm and not a thing; if we understand that this
Charm is wholly dependent on human intention, of a moment in time,
the spontaneous lurch of our hearts; if we realise that such a charm is
fragile and not always obvious to our minds and is allied to so many
imponderable factors; and that this depends first and foremost on our
honesty; then and only then will we know how to consent to this, the
Charm created by music, which is the only true state of Grace.
(Jankélévitch, 2003: 110)

Jankélévitch’s formulation of music is, though, less ‘metaphysical’ than it

seems. Rather, his formulation of charm is offered as a space that opens endlessly
for something new and different. As he says,

with this Charm [the musical act], there is nothing to ‘think’ about – and
this amounts to the same thing – there is food for thought, in some form, for
all infinity; this charm engenders speculation inexhaustibly, is inexhaustible
as the fertile ground for perplexity.
(Jankélévitch, 2003: 83)

And for Jankélévitch this speculative musicality of Charm does not express
nothing; nor does it privilege a particular form of expression; nor does it aim
towards Absolute Spirit nor to a Romantic or Schopenhauerian reconciliation;
nor is it didactic. Rather, music is inexpressible because it

implies numerous possibilities of interpretation, because it allows us to

choose between them. These possibilities co-penetrate one another instead
of precluding one another … As an ineffably general language (if such is
what ‘language’ should be) music is docile, lending itself to countless
(Jankélévitch, 2003: 75)

Yet, music qua Charm is not passive; it ‘smuggles’ in possibilities that are wholly
new (Jankélévitch, 2003: 98). These wholly new possibilities require silence – the
space of creativity, the space of/for listening, as well as the space between the
notes – as much as the sonorous presence of music. Silence allows a voice to
come from elsewhere (Jankélévitch, 2003: 139, 151).
Music as a space of possibilities 253
So where does this leave music in the midst of these very mixed yet
important and varied philosophical accounts? Each of these writers alludes to
music as an especially multidimensional form. Although they may say it
indirectly music requires players and not only composers, as well as spaces to
play, listen and be released into. It also requires spaces qua compositional
form, that is, a spatial arrangement of sounds (irrespective of whether this is
remembered or written down). There is also a struggle within their works
of theorising the relation between words/language and music (although
Schopenhauer is the clearest here), a struggle that points towards musical and
extra-musical accounts of music, as we shall see. Elsewhere, I have portrayed
this musical space as one involving three aspects that intersect and buttress
one another. These aspects are, first, an acousmatic one, which opens onto
music’s ontological status qua aesthetic autonomy, transcendence and depth
qua chromaticism; second, the ways it is intersubjectively constituted and
experienced; and third, the sociocultural‒public, private or intimate spaces in
which it is played and listened to (Rundell, 2010).
Ontological accounts of music, at least in a modern register, tend to
emphasise musicality in terms of its own resources rather than ones that rely
on extra-musical or external sources. This modern ontological account of
music, the one favoured here, is the acousmatic. It is also indicative of an
internal differentiation within aesthetic modernity between its different genres
and forms. It thus opens onto the specificity of music itself, that is, its acousmatic
dimensions. From an acousmatic perspective music is formed once a particular
constellation of sound forms are brought together and become a point of
focus – when rhythm, melody and harmony are deliberately and consciously
created and listened to. In other words, music is a further abstraction of a
human sound world. Music is heard as tones moving in space. As Scruton
puts it in spatial terms, three things occur when music is heard.

There is a vibration in the air; by virtue of this vibration we hear a

sound … and in this sound we hear an organisation that is not reducible
to any properties of the sound … As a result of hearing this organisation
we may … feel an urge to move in time to the music, to even dance or
sing along with it, or listen to it from a state of rapt motionless attention.
(Scruton, 2009: 47, emphasis added).9

As such, music is a spatial form, perhaps more so than a temporal one. Both
melody and harmony are spatial in that there is a ‘gravitational pull’ of the
tone towards its centre – and this can create chords with or without tension,
that is, with or without discord. In this sense, melody and harmony are spatially
conceived and working ‘metaphors’ or abstractions that give a sense of con-
tinuity (one note leads to another) as well as depth to the music itself (which
may or may not be written out). We hear music multidimensionally – horizontally
and vertically and usually at the same time. Time, then, is a secondary orga-
nisation of this tonal‒musical world. We first have to hear something before
254 In search of transcendence
the rhythm kicks in, so to speak, and hence a tonal world is the paradigmatic
form of music. All cultures have tonal forms of some type or another. This does
not suggest that tones belong to nature, in other words, that there are ‘natural
harmonies’ that arise out of nature and give resonance to, and our under-
standing and pleasure of, it. Even if there are octaves and harmonies, the
moment that one hears music one is already either in the world of convention,
or in the creative imaginary one where order is created and/or rearranged,
where surprises occur and new music is formed and heard (which may or may
not break convention) And this applies as much to ‘traditional’ music, as it
does to classical, post-classical music and to jazz.
But spatially music is more than this. While acousmatic, music is deeply
implicated in the ways in which people feel and are moved by it, and interact
within its own space of possibilities. Music is a space of intersubjective possibi-
lities in terms of chromatic dissonance and chromatic contemplation. In terms
of the former, the variety of intersubjective forms – love, friendship, violence
or cruelty, for example – can be explored in ways that extend our comprehen-
sion and understanding of them. In terms of the latter, we establish particular
relationships with particular works of art or pieces of music because of their
uniqueness for us. Here we simply exist for the particular work of art, and it
exists for, and speaks to us, often time and again. It does not have to do
anything, and is irreducible to techne and even theological or practical rea-
soning. It does not have to educate, to give moral instruction, or even criticise
(Heller, 2011: 47–64).
In this musical ‘space of possibilities’ specifically modern aesthetic possibilities
are created, evoked, opened or closed. In contrast to Habermas’s formulation
of the liberating power of symbols with its reliance on the linguistic turn, one
might talk of the liberating power of sounds. But even this is a misnomer.
Music can move us; convey things that are otherwise inexpressible. Music is,
thus, also a space of transcendence and ineffability in the manner explored by
Schopenhauer and Jankélévitch above.
Hence, one of the features of modernity is its infinite capacity not only for
‘rationalisation’, but also for aesthetically inspired experimentation with
chromatic and contemplative dissonances that may create their own moments
of depth, enchantment and re-enchantment. These occur in a modern register
alongside the rationalist paradigm and in ways that also predate Romanticism.
In this context, enchantment and re-enchantment occur from drawing on pre-
existing and long established religious traditions, and by so doing create new
religious interpretations. But it is more than this. New forms of enchantment
are or can be created in and of themselves that derive from modern sources,
aspirations and vocabularies of chromatic contemplation and contemplative
dissonance including those of love, hope, joy, loss, grief and fear, and remain
enchanted rather than are simply subsumed, one-dimensionalised or exhausted.
This occurs in all modern aesthetic media and could not exist without it –
from painting, to sculpture, to literature, poetry and plays, and cinema. And
it is no different with music. This tension between rationalisation and
Music as a space of possibilities 255
aesthetically inspired enchanted creativity occurs with, as well as through the
distinction between allegorical and acousmatic possibilities. Within the context
of musico-aesthetic modernity the issue becomes as to whether or not the
extra-musical resources and dimensions recede or are replaced by purely
acousmatic ones as part of its own quest for autonomy.
With this in mind let us now turn to the works of Simmel and Weber as a
way of further developing and listening to modern music’s own ‘space of

Rhythms and melodies

Georg Simmel’s Philosophy of Money can be drawn on as an initial statement
of this part of our invention – rhythm and melody. While music may not be
an explicit point of reference for Simmel’s reflections his comments on rhythm
are of interest. He places great emphasis on the changing rhythms of modern
life, where rhythm is his self-consciously chosen expressive category. For
Simmel, initially at least, rhythm refers to the general ‘periodicity of life’, the
coursing of natural time – day and night, the changing of the seasons and the
passing of the years. In other words, it is a stand-in category for a naturalised
background sense of historicity. What might be termed ‘the rhythm of life’,
according to Simmel,

satisfies the basic needs for both diversity and regularity, for change and
stability. In that each period is composed of different elements, of elevation
and decline, of quantitative or qualitative variety, the regular repetition
produces a regular re-assurance, uniformity and unity in the character of
the series.
(Simmel, 1978: 486)

Perhaps Reynard, one of Nancy Huston’s characters in her The Goldberg

Variations, puts it best when he states:

I have the right to choose my own funeral music … So listen to me –

listen – I want you to play my record of tam-tam music from Black
Africa. Nothing else. Will I be able to make myself clear? No requiems,
no hymns, no Eine Kleine Nachtmusik – no Mother, not even your precious
Mozart. Nothing but tam-tams. Pure rhythm. Black hands causing the
void to vibrate.
(Huston, 1996: 128)

To be sure, Simmel’s nineteenth-century civilisational evolutionism blinds and

gets the better of him as he chases the rhythm across the dance floor, so to
speak. Rhythm creation means, for him at least, primitive immediacy, where
rhythm and symmetry combine to emphasise the regular beat as the pulsating
immediacy of life. Melody, on the other hand, for Simmel is reflexive; the
256 In search of transcendence
tonal quality of song increases the range of interpretation of human experiences
beyond the immediate rhythm of the day-to-day (Simmel, 1978: 487).
However, there is more going on in Simmel’s remarks than the distinction
between rhythm and melody. Music, like aesthetics in general, for Simmel
changes the field in which we place ourselves in the sense that both rhythm
and melody indicate a capacity for increas