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Reconstituting Social Criticism: Political Morality in an Age of Scepticism.

Reconstituting Social Criticism: Political Morality in an Age of Scepticism. Edited by Iain MacKenzie and Shane O'Neill. New York: St. Martin's, 1999. 217p. $65.00.

The eleven essays in this volume are the product of a conference held in June 1996 at Queen's University, Belfast. As the title indicates, the theme was the current status (O'Neill refers to it as "the contemporary crisis," p. 1) of philosophically grounded social criticism in a time of postsocialism, neoliberal globalization, and postmodern skepticism. As O'Neill makes clear in the Introduction, the Left must regain its theoretical self-confidence and advance a powerful, alternative progressive vision to the present order of things.

O'Neill's introductory essay does a good job of defining the challenges facing contemporary critical theorists and summarizing the work of the eleven contributors. The essays are lucid, topical, significant, and short. All these qualities are virtues. The essays also offer a rich variety of alternative theoretical strategies for advancing progressive social and political critique. They strive to clarify and modify the work of Marx, Walzer, Foucault, Castoriadis, Rorty, Habermas, and Rawls, among others.

This book is divided into four sections. The essays by Simon Caney, Keith Graham, and John Baker advance arguments in defense of moral universalism as a normative foundation for social and political critique. Those by Aletta J. Norval, Jon Simons, and Caroline Williams reaffirm the validity of contextual critique and the poststructuralist contesting of boundaries. The contribution by Nicholas H. Smith sorts out the positions of Richard Rorty and J[ddot{u}]rgen Habermas. Norman Geras revisits the Holocaust in order to illuminate that "a contract of mutual indifference is a reality in the contemporary world" (pp. 10-1). The concluding essays, by Richard Bellamy, Maeve Cooke, and Thomas McCarthy, deal with the task of negotiating normative critique in a time of cultural pluralism from the respective perspectives of liberalism, deliberative democracy, and neoKantian conceptions of cosmopolitan justice. The essays by Norval, Simons, Smith, Cooke, and McCarthy speak most directly and significantly to the book's st ated challenge of reconstituting philosophically grounded social criticism at the present time.

Norval draws upon Derrida's thesis of "iterability" to bolster Walzer's account of thick and thin moralities. Walzer has argued that morality is thick (deeply embedded in history and culture) and thus critique must be immanent and interpretive, but local critique can become global through an existential or crisis encounter in which a thin, universal morality emerges out of the experiential interchange of cultures. The problem, however, is that Walzer conceptualizes cultures, and therefore moralities, as bounded, intact, univocal voices (a closed "we"). Derrida's thesis of the repetitive alteration of a constructed identity or sign allows us both easier movement between thick and thin narratives and a greater appreciation of the complexity of situated and reconstituted critique.

Simons employs Fredric Jameson's idea of aesthetic "cognitive mapping," Foucault's critical genealogies, and the work of Virginia Woolf to make the case for "fictive theory." Unlike critical theory, which is committed to epistemological foundationalism and emancipatory social scientific knowledge, fictive theory employs aesthetic cognition in developing critical narratives and images that can contest existing power networks. Simons makes a compelling argument that an aesthetic politics is often more effective and resonates better with its interpretive audience or community of action than does critical theory's appeal to epistemological rigor and "the force of the better argument." I agree. In a postmodernized world, the pragmatic power of fictive representations and symbolic politics allows us more scope for effective action.

Smith tackles the attempts made by Rorty and Habermas to advance new modes of critique while acknowledging contingency. In the case of Rorty, the human condition is structured by radical contingency. In the case of Habermas, the formal structures of speech and moral claims about justice or "right" transcend contingency. Smith's insightful exposition and critique of both positions leads him in a thought-provoking direction. Smith reminds us, and Rorty, that a commitment to radical contingency in all things can undermine both the pursuit of self-creation and social solidarity. As for Habermas, his "postmetaphysical" model of procedural-discursive reason results in both a too narrow and too demanding idea of a philosophically constituted social criticism. By contrast, Smith opts for a greater appreciation of "ontological reflection" linked to substantive ethical orientations. Although Smith does not develop this approach, significant work has been done in this area by Fred Dallmayr.

Contending that ethical conflicts are reconcilable in principle, Maeve Cooke makes the case for a modified version of Habermas's model of deliberative democracy. Cooke believes that substantive ethical values can be given more weight in relation to procedures of moral justification and that the regulative ideal of rational consensus needs more slack. Despite its weaknesses, Habermas's model of democracy is better than those advanced by postmodernists because the latter lead us in the direction of a privatization of ethical matters. On this point I find Cooke unconvincing. As I read William Connolly and Chantal Mouffe, their postmodern models of radical democracy do not, in principle, result in an ethos and politics of privatization.

McCarthy, convinced that the time is ripe for rethinking cosmopolitan ideals, turns to the theories of justice advanced by Rawls and Habermas to illuminate this conviction. Rawls's recent attempt to develop a theory of international justice in "The Law of Peoples" (Critical Inquiry 20 [Autumn 1993]: 36-69) is a disappointment for McCarthy. In order to accommodate "well-ordered, non-liberal societies," Rawls's liberal ideas of justice and "reasonableness" undergo "considerable dilution" (p. 197). McCarthy concludes that Rawls jettisons distributive and democratic concerns and reduces civil liberties to a bare minimum in order to make justice acceptable to nonliberal societies. The result is cosmopolitan but not very just. McCarthy concludes with a very brief sketch of "an alternative route" (p. 207) closer to the spirit of Kant and Habermas and designed to accommodate both multicultural cosmopolitanism and a legal-political structure of human rights and global federalism. If one is searching for a much more s ophisticated neo-Kantian account of cosmopolitan justice, however, I would recommend David Held's model of cosmopolitan democracy in Democracy and the Global Order (1995).

One section is missing in this fine collection of essays. This would map out the existing power structure to which all these critical theories and alternative models of criticism are opposed. Not one essay seeks to give us an idea of what our current postsocialist, neoliberal, globalized condition looks like. Should not this be our starting point in the development of critical theories and progressive political agendas?
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Gabardi, Wayne
Publication:American Political Science Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 2000
Words:1082
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