The Betrayal of History
On Politics and Philosophy
in "Dreamworld and Catastrophe"
By: Susan Buck-Morss
By: Sam Vaknin, Ph.D.
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Written: September, 2000
"Hell hath no fury like an intellectual
William Shakespeare, very liberally paraphrased
"Dreamworld and Catastrophe" is a cry of anguish disguised as the interdisciplinary analyses of a (neo-)Marxist scholar. It is a fragmentary and tortured reaction to the betrayal of history, in the best of Walter Benjamin's tradition, consciously emulated in this tome by this leading authority on the Frankfurt School. It is painful to wade through the convolutions of denial, intellectualization and projection that constitute the first part ("Democracy" - the political framework). The next two sections ("History" and "Mass Culture") are a joyride of erudition and an intellectual tour de force. The last part - a dry chronicle of the comings and goings of the author's milieu amidst the disintegration of the USSR and the emergence of Russia - is anti-climactic. The opus in its entirety does not fuflil the blurb's somewhat hubristic promise: "This book offers a revaluation of the twentieth century."
The author draws on Walter Benjamin, Carl P. Schmitt (whom she describes as being merely "briefly a member of the Nazi Party"! - p. 8) and others in formulating a set of exegetic principles, which she then applies to this sad past century. "Modern sovereignties" - she writes - "harbor a blind spot, a zone in which power is above the law and thus, at least potentially, a terrain of terror". A form of malignant ("supralegal" or "prelegal") legitimacy lies at the core of this "wild zone". The premise that popular will and popular sovereignty are one and the same is the "democratic swindle" (Marx). The author leads us gently to the conclusion that the monopoly of law-making and the monopoly of violence are inextricable if not one and the same. The latter (violence) is applied to safeguard the former. "...The effect of this circularity is to undermine the very possibility of the legal/illegal distinction."
Yet, the author conveniently ignores the fact that the social contract - the emergent derivative of explicit and implicit popular will - includes not only laws but also permissible modes of expression and of dissent and the venues and procedures for enacting laws. By placing oneself outside the social contract, one provokes violence. But the violent reaction of the sovereign is not, as the author implies, an effort to preserve the monopoly of determining what justice is (i.e., what is the law). It is intended to protect the social contract itself, only one element of which is the allocation of law-making powers.
The author's reductionist predilections manifest more forecefully with every turned page. "The rightful power of the democratic sovereignty to wage war is the source of its legitimate claim to the monopoly of violence and to the exercise of terror" (p. 8). And: "...defining the enemy is the act that brings the collective into being... There is no collective until the 'democratic' sovereign - precisely in the act of naming the common enemy - calls that collective into being." Put differently: it is the act of claiming the monopoly of violence (and of exercising it against a common enemy) that creates a polity - not vice versa. The people is not the one to grant the monopoly of violence - the nation does not even exist prior to the coalescence of this power. Violence creates nations. Violence bestows democratic legitimacy upon and establishes the democratic credentials of its perpetrator. The author's is a bleak and far reaching construct. It also ignores the fact that "nation-states" are not monolithic. Many of these entities are goal-oriented, not belligerent. Many do not have a common enemy (internal or external). For most modern nation-states, these crucial sentences hold untrue: "What is at stake in war is the life or death of the collective itself" (p. 12) and "The disappearance of the enemy threatens to dissolve the collective itself" (p. 13).
Moreover, the advent of international law, human interventions, monetary unions and multilateral legal and financial institutions seems to partially invalidate or, at least, constrain observations such as this one: "Each sovereign political agency has ... a degree of absolute power in the field of foreign policy that would not be sanctioned within the sphere of domestic political life." The trend is towards the acceptance and enforcement of a type of domestic social contract in the international arena. That the "wild zone", the penumbral "terrain of terror", is the stage for unscrupulous agents is, alas, true. But crimes commited in the name of the state are still crimes and their perpetrators are often punished or condemned. Fascism (mentioned by the author as "not an aberrant to the nation-state imaginary") is an excellent instance. The Nuremberg trials and the Eichman trial attest to the limited protection of the twilight zone of malignant sovereignty. Ask Pinochet.
The author writes: "In the constitution of nation states, the executive is allowed quasi-dictatorial powers in times of war or 'national emergency' just as the very conception of the party as the 'dictatorship of the proletariat' implies such power to act against counterrevolutionary activities." But this ignores that in liberal democracies the executive is subject to tediously thorough and mostly transparent procedures of debate and decision-making (which incorporate the opposition). It also ignores the fact that class warfare is a permanent state (until victory is achieved) while nation-state warfare is the historical exception.
It is noteworthy that the author sees no MORAL difference between socialism and capitalism. Her work is either morally relativistic or amoral. It reads like insular deconstruction at its most delusional. Granted, both employ what Althusser called Ideological State Apparatuses and force ideology upon their subject ("interpellate" them). But here, in the realm of the structural, the similarity ends. How can one equate a regime which murdered 20 million of its own citizens in a cold, systematic manner to the (admittedly blemished) liberal-democratic regimes of the West in the 20th century? What can justify, support or prove this statement: "But by turning a blind eye to this common heritage (legitimacy induced by monopolistic violence against an enemy - SV) - each accepting only part, a different part, as legitimate - East and West declared each other not only illegitimate but evil, and projected the problematic aspects of the democratic tradition onto the other side, refusing to face their own failures as democracies in the process." (p. 14). Or: "... the cultural forms that existed in 'East' and 'West' ... appear uncannily similar." What are these cultural forms? "... They shared a faith in the modernizing process developed by the West" (p. X). What about human rights? The rule of law? The right not to be assassinated by a bloodthirsty apparatus of the state? Equality and meritocracy outside a nonenklatura? These seem to be "cultural forms" not shared by the otherwise "uncannily" similar traditions - socialism and capitalism. To fail to make distinctions between Grossraum and Lebensraum (again, in the 20th century), between Stalin and Roosevelt, the gulag and Sing-Sing, the (slaughtered) kulaks and the (discriminated against) negroes - might be construed as a serious breach of academic integrity, not to mention morality. To call the regime of Lenin and Stalin one of the "...two models of democratic sovereignty" (p. 21) is a travesty.
The author proposes two historical organizing principles of considerable insight. The one is that socialism was based on an imaginary of "irreconcilably antagonistic warring classes" while capitalism incorporated the imaginary of "mutually exclusive, potentially hostile nation states" (p. 13). There is a "dialectical relation between nation and class" (p. 25). The other is that nation-states operate in the dimension of space - while class warfare takes place in time. Yet, she fails to agree a common terminlology with her readers. What are the "class divisions" in the USA? Employee stock options, home ownership, investment in equities, Silicon valley entrepreneurship and ever-cheaper products and services seem to have blurred class distinctions into oblivion. What constitutes "imperialism" (not to mention "neo-imperialism")? The author seems to under-emphasize the economic motivation of spatial conquests (colonialism and its intellectual corollary, mercantilism). For that matter: what is the nation-state? There are numerous models and a continuous evolution of the "imaginary". Even the apparently simple concept of "enemy" could have used some elucidation. The enemies of the West are those who challenge the status quo (Hitler, Milosevic, Saddam Hussein, the Bolsheviks). The enemies of the East are those who challenge class (read: party) defined "progress" (economic "saboteurs", dissidents, kulaks). And while the author alludes to this difference (or should I say differance) - she refrains from putting it to good use.
A symptomatic reading of the author reveals her problematic (to borrow from Althusser). It is most evident in her choice of what she seems to regard as mutually exclusive parameters, "space" and "time". Time and space (and not only in physics) are interchangeable. Progress in time can be measured only by commensurate changes in space. Even in the itinerant Soviet state, the achievements of the working class were measured in cubic metres mined and kliometres of tunnels dug. Mines and tunnels, hydroelectric stations and sputniks are spatial. The author thinks that "socialism failed in this century because it mimicked capitalism too faithfully". And I submit that socialism's undoing was its combined attempts at abstraction. In its efforts to become a-spatial, a-temporal (hasten the flow of time and compress historical processes) and a-human (to ignore human psychology) - it imploded. Capitalism avoided these pitfalls. It is spatial (nation states and imperialism), it is temporal (time is money and the idea of progress) and it is human (greed and envy are accommodated or positively encouraged). It cannot fail because it is the popular will. Socialism (rather, Marxism) could not but fail because it was a sterile and artificial construct of esoteric intellectuals. It was lifeless.
And this is what the author calls the "betrayal of history". At first, she grudgingly accepts that socialism lost the war: "...the hegemonic discourse affirms the moral superiority of those who have been the victors in this century. There is little reflection on how many beliefs they shared with those whom they defeated". And even less about WHY they won the war. This is, perhaps, the most disheartening and disappointing aspect of this book. It is descriptive, provocative and evocative. But it says nothing about the realy important issues. What went wrong? Why? What went right? Why? What will be?
Even accepting that the "mass democratic myth" - "... the belief that the industrial reshaping of the world is capable of bringing about the good society by providing the material happiness for the masses (p. IX)", debunked by the demise of socialism, has been common to both it and capitalism. The question remains: Why? What happened? The pursuit of happiness is universal. No political system can ignore it. That this resulted in industrial utopias is a conjuncture. Scientific-technological-industrial utopias were precded by religious ones. Utopianism is the expression of the desire for bliss. These are superficial and contingent similarities. The differences between the two weltanschauungen were much more fundamental (individualism versus the mass, a circular versus linear concept of progress, pluralism versus uniformity, etc.). Not only does the author gloss over these - she reverses her own position not 40 pages later and denies the very (apparently too painful) defeat that she espouses earlier.
Compare these two paragraphs:
"Against the often-repeated story of the West's winning the Cold War and capitalism's historical triumph over socialism, these essays argue that the historical experiment of socialism was so deeply rooted in the Western modernizing tradition that its defeat cannot but place the whole Western narrative into question." (p. XII)
"If the era of the Cold War is over it is, perhaps, less because one side has 'won' than because the legitimation of each political discourse found itself fundamentally challenged by material developments themselves."
The author obviously feels more at home in the next two sections of her book. She deals there with Time and Mass Culture in the USSR and contrasts it to the situation in the West. It is an unmitigated intellectual feast and it will be the subject of our next article.
Benjamin and Adorno
It is impossible, nor is it desirable to neglect the influence of Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin on the author. Another strong (mainly semiotic) influence has emanated from Valerii Podoroga and his circle of post-communist (post-modern) Russian philosophers. I find it ironic that the author seemed to have fallen into the very trap that Horkheimer and Adorno have warned against in the "Dialectic of the Enlightenment" (1947). Her resistance to the seductions of the (Western) myth led her to rationalize herself into a new myth (neo-Marxism) and to engage in identity thinking.
Post-Auschwitz Adorno did not believe in an emancipated, utopian future. In this and in his rejection of "identity thinking" (subsuming particulars or individuals under an Hegelian Absolute Idea and identifying the subjects with objects) he was an anti-Marxist Marxist (although he applied his critical theory mostly to capitalism). Objects, according to Adorno (and Benjamin), cannot be fully covered by concepts or totally belong to a whole. The discrepancies in the interactions of objects and their concepts are revealing. They can be explored using "negative dialectics". A kaleidoscopic constellation of concepts emerges as the object's "inner history" is studied. Put simply: objects (particulars) are never fully specimen of the concept (the universal).
Adorno blamed the culture industry in capitalitic countries for goading the individual to adapt to his life's conditions by promoting a "total angle". He thought that art and philosophy should be self-critical and unmask the familiar, preventing its mindless acceptance. How the anti-socialist (anti-communist) implications of his own work eluded him is a mystery. His refusal to engage in political activism may be telling. It took courage and a lot of negative dialectics...
Benjamin was a more tragic and complex figure. He is also more relevant to the author's work. In essence, he was obsessed with the possibility of writing history at all and the intricate interactions between exclusion (forgetting) and inclusion (remembering). To Benjamin, memory was a series of discontinuous fragments connected by subjectivity (which potentially endowed them with a political agency). Benjamin did not believe in the linearity of history (and, therefore, in the idea of progress, class-related, or not). This rejection of "flow" and "continuum" in favour of "montage" and "fragment" is at the heart of his "Critical Aesthetic". He rejected the forced unification of the objective and the subjective under a scientific universal grammar. This was pretentious, he claimed. Instead, he propagated the idea of "constellation-events" (see above) in pursuit of the "truth". This "truth" is the "authentic" structural elements of an idea as revealed by perusing the sum of all its meaningful combinations with other ideas. This process is at the heart of what what Benjamin called the "Science of Origin".
In the Prologue to his now famous book "The Origin of German Tragic Drama" ("The Epistemo-Critical Prologue") Benjamin promoted the superiority of allegory over symbol as means of coping with a "past of wholeness" (more about this in the next article). But this apparently strictly literay-cultural-philosophical occupation was really political in nature. In his work, Benjamin compared the Baroque to his own era - decadent, devoid of community ethos, obsessed with aesthetics. This was a political-aesthetic statement. Secondly, the attempt to recapture past wholeness through allegory (i.e., through conscious illusion) had strong political undertones or, at least, equivalents. In other words, Benjamin's work itself was an allegory of politics. Thus, the transition to political activism comes as no surprise to us.
The "Arcades Project" used 19th century Parisian tropes ("prostitution", "fashion", "gambling", etc.) to reconstruct an history of urban modernity itself. The influential "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" was part of this on-going project. The author employs a similar technique in her book (see next article). Benjamin was a materialist, but manifestly NON-dialectical. He postulated the existence and operation of a cohesive consciousness over and above its actuality as a "constellation of reality". Dialectical images are imanent in such a transcendental consciousness. They are not the result of a commodity fetish. While the author strives to "rescue" past images in danger of irretrievably disappearing (a uniquely Bejaminean pre-occupation) she "succumbs" to the more orthodox explanations of the commodity fetish and consumerism. She thus implicitly rejects Benjamin's observation in "Theses on the Philosophy of History" that our position in time (i.e., in history) prejudices us. That our very capacity to recognize proleptic or anticipatory images is conditioned and biased. The party would have been proud of her.
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