Adventures of the Symbolic

Warren Breckman, Adventures of the Symbolic (Columbia University Press, 2013)

Warren Breckman’s new book, Adventures of the Symbolic: Postmarxism and Radical Democracy has appeared with Columbia University Press, 2013. The book explores a body of theoretical work on ‘radical democracy’ shaped by the collapse of Marxism in the last decades of the twentieth century. It tracks a number of important theorists historically and philosophically; it locates their work within a much deeper genealogy; and it demonstrates the pressing relevance of this work for contemporary political activism. With the protracted crisis of political and philosophical Marxism in the later twentieth century, dialectical thinking lost its grip on western European radical intellectuals. In place of dialectics, the ‘symbolic’ emerged as a master concept in the thought of a wide range of thinkers wrestling with the challenges of reinventing leftist thought outside a Marxian framework. Marxism’s collapse produced profound changes in the style and content of recent radical thought: the renunciation of revolution, turn from class to more fragmented models of social action, recognition of the constructedness of the social world (hence, the primary importance of the ‘symbolic’), assertion of the primary of the political over the social, and, above all, recovery of robust forms of democratic thought and practice. Echoing Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s famous assessment of philosophical Marxism at mid-century, Adventures of the Dialectic, this book traces the adventures of the symbolic through a series of historically and philosophically probing chapters on a number of key theorists: Cornelius Castoriadis, Claude Lefort, Marcel Gauchet, Ernesto Laclau, Chantal Mouffe, and Slavoj Žižek. If the term ‘the symbolic’ first awakens associations with the French structuralist idea of the ‘Symbolic Order’, it reaches even deeper into history. For the idea of the symbolic that postmarxist thinkers mobilized is more complicated, polyvalent and unmasterable than structuralism’s rather static and reductionist notion. Precisely these dynamic features open up the philosophical terrain for postmarxist theories of radical democracy. To get at this richer, deeper genealogy, it is necessary to return to the early German Romantics, the first thinkers to explore and formulate modern ideas about symbolism and the symbolic. An account of Romantic symbol theory sets in motion one of the book’s key narrative and analytical devices: starting with Hegel, the Left Hegelians and Karl Marx denounced the Romantics for their otherworldly and nebulous posture, and in place of Romantic symbolic consciousness demanded a radical project of ‘desymbolization’. The European Left followed suit in demanding an emphatically this-worldly attitude and a theory of knowledge aimed at mastery of the social and natural worlds. In the period of Marxism’s collapse, the kinds of ambiguities and paradoxes seen in Romanticism reemerge and become reactivated. While not insisting on direct lines of influence or continuity between the period of German Idealism and Romanticism, the book suggests that themes and resonances first encountered in the Romantics resurface as a host of recent figures wrestle with the problem of the symbolic formation and political transformation of the social world.

Fore more information, please see the publisher’s website.


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