Thursday, April 02, 2009

Call for papers: The Modern Problematique - Transformations and Tensions, Openings and Closures

Tyrifjord, Norway July 19 - 26
Key note speakers: Peter Wagner and Steven Shaviro

Modernity: one or many?
Modernity has traditionally been thought as one phenomenon – a break with traditional society, or a development there from (cf. Durkheim, Habermas, Lévi-Strauss, Weber). Over the past decades, however, scholars have voiced concerns about this agreed unity. Modernity conceived as a unity is, in many ways, a Western idea, carrying the sigils of the hegemon. An alternative would be to regard modernity as a multiple, or as a successive phenomena (Eisenstadt, Arnason, Wagner). Modernities take diverse forms in both space and time.

What is modern society?
In order to discuss modernity, we need a conception of society. Cornelius Castoriadis has an original take on what a society his. To him, society is first and foremost described in terms of imaginary significations.

To understand a society, then, means to understand its social imaginary significations, and the meaning they embody. The central social imaginary significations in modernity are, to him, "rational mastery" and "autonomy". These significations contradict each other, but at the same time, provide support for each other. Socialization in Western societies, then, means to invest emotional energy – belief, meaning, secondary values – in these significations.

In response to the emergence of a modern society, a social philosophy and a social science arose, which aimed at understanding the ongoing transition from “traditional” to “modern” societ[b]y[/b] and the many social problems (anomie, alienation, disenchantment, inequality, exclusion, etc.) based in this groundbreaking social transformation. The distinction between “tradition” and “modernity” became fundamental. Many contemporary scholars, however, are convinced that such a distinction is not sufficient to capture the basic social conditions of the present. The distinction implicates that the last, major transformation of Western societies occurred more than a hundred years ago, and that social change since then is only about gradual transitions. This assumption - which has been very influential not only in academic thought, but also in politics and everyday life during the 20th century - sits under the heading of “modernization theory”. The idea is that that more and more institutions, individuals and communities are turning more and more modern; i.e. social change is unilaterally interpreted as the realization of modernity.

Contemporary sociologists now suggest that recent transformations of social institutions, and of cognitive and normative convictions, are so fundamental that the history of modern societies itself must be divided into different epochs.

One, two, many modernities
Distinctions between “early” and “late” (or “high”) modernity, modern and “postmodern” society, “first” and “second modernity”, “solid” and “liquid” modernity have become widespread (cf. Lyotard, Giddens, Sennett, Beck and Bauman).

Recent theories of “successive modernities” claim that there has been two epochs in the history modern societies, and that a third one is in the process of being established (Peter Wagner, Luc Boltanski/Eve Chiapello and Johann Arnason). Peter Wagner describes – in an ideal typical sense - three epochs of modernity: The first one is liberal-bourgeois in character and restricts modernity only to certain segments of the population. This epoch is replaced by a bureaucratic-administrative model, which is more inclusive. The third epoch, which Wagner mentions, is called an “extended liberal modernity”, but it remains undeveloped in his work. Others, like Beck, Bauman and Sennett, divides modernity in only two epochs, but describe certain aspects of the present epoch more in detail than Wagner. Chiapello and Boltanski speak about three “spirits of capitalism”. They do not focus on the institution of capitalism, but – relating back to Max Weber – on the spirit of capitalism. This means that justifications, critiques (social and artistic) and discourses of capitalism are central in their analysis of the transformation. Secondly, they conduct an analysis of discourses in order to capture this transformation. Management literature is their empirical object of research. A political theory of successive modernities can also be developed. Historically, T.H Marshall’s well-known theory of citizenship and its transformation can here be of some relevance. The transformation from civil rights to social rights captures an important part of the transition from a first to a second epoch of modern democracy. The concept “service democracy” has been used by others to capture this later epoch. The citizen turns into a client, while the state and administration - guided by experts - guarantee the constant supply of resources. Today, however, there are clear indications that service democracy is loosing legitimacy.

Society without meaning?
Since modernity's beginning, there has been a struggle for and tensions between the strive for autonomy and rational mastery. The situation today, however, seem more ambiguous than ever. In many spheres of social life we can notice a certain significational void, a state of limbo, where meaning no longer makes sense. In Castoriadis' view, two tendencies can be identified: A lack of investment in past significations (the tradition), and a lack of investment in new ones. Perhaps what we see today is a second crisis of modernity, where a third kind of modernity is developing, or we are finally leaving modernity and its significations alltogether.

Yet, there seems to be a certain contradiction between this diagnosis – generalized conformism and insignificance – and his former sociological thesis, which said that a society exists insofar and through collective investment in certain significations. And correspondingly, that a society ceases to exist as society the minute its members no longer believe in the core significations which hold that society together.

Does this mean that Westerners do not live in a society? Or is "insignificance" in itself a signification? A very strong, dominant one, which trumps all tendencies or attempts to muster political and social action? A cynicism that makes all effort and qualitative investments laughable?

Peter Wagner’s ground breaking work, A Sociology of Modernity, identified two main themes of modernity: liberty and discipline. His latest book, Modernity as Experience and Interpretation, explores the modern problematique throughout Western history. One implication of his perspective is that modernity is - are - phenomenons to be interpreted and problematized, in multiple ways.

The Nordic Summer University invites papers that explore these and related questions from various perspectives, like political philosophy, history, sociology, art and more.

Please send abstract to

Arnason, J. P. (1989) “The imaginary constitution of modernity”, in G Busino et al., Autonomie et transformation de la société Geneva: Dorz
Arnason, J. P. 2005. "Alternating Modernities: The Case of Czechoslovakia." European Journal of Social Theory 8:435-51
Boltanski, L. & Chiapello, É. (2005): The new spirit of capitalism. London: Verso.
Carleheden, M. 2006. "The transformation of our conduct of life: One aspect of the three epochs of Western modernity." Distinktion 55-75
Castoriadis, Cornelius (2007): Figures of the Thinkable. Stanford, Stanford University Press
Castoriadis, Cornelius (2005): Une société à la derive. Entretiens et débats. Paris, Seuil
Castoriadis (2004): Post-scriptum sur l’insignifiance. Entretiens avec Daniel Mermet. Paris, Éditions de l’aube
Castoriadis, Cornelius (1999): Dialogue. Paris, Èditions de l’aube
Castoriadis, Cornelius (1998): The Imaginary Institution of Society. Cambridge, MIT Press
Castoriadis, Cornelius (1997): World in Fragments. Writings on Politics, Society,
Psychoanalysis and the Imagination. Stanford, Stanford University Press
Castoriadis, Cornelius (1996): La monté de l’insignifiance, Les Carrefours du labyrinthe IV. Paris, Seuil
Castoriadis, Cornelius (1995): Filosofi, politik, autonomi. Stockholm/Stehag, Brutus Östling
Castoriadis, Cornelius (1991): Philosophy, Politics, Autonomy. Essays in Political
Philosophy. New York, Oxford University Press
Eisenstadt, S. 2002. Multiple modernities. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers.
Habermas, J. (1990): Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit: Untersuchungen zu einer Kategorie der bürgerlichen Gesellschaft. Frankfurt am main. Suhrkamp
Habermas, J. (1992): Faktizität und Geltung: Beiträge zur Diskurstheorie des Rechts und des demokratischen Rechtsstaats. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.
Sennett, R. (2006): The culture of the new capitalism. New Haven: Yale UP.
Wagner, P. (1994): A sociology of modernity: liberty and discipline. London: Routledge.
Wagner, P. (2008): Modernity as experience and interpretation: A new sociology of modernity. Cambridge Polity Press


At 12:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Would it be possible for one of the organisers of the Nordic Summer University's Summer Session 2009 to post a link to available/presented papers on this blog? Thank you.


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