Fragility of the rational
This article is part of the 21/2019 Eurozine review. Click here to subscribe to our reviews, and you also can subscribe to our newsletterand get the bi-weekly updates about latest publications and news on partner journals.
Leviathan defends Habermas’s theoretical style; rekto:verso explores the internet; Positionen recommends the healing effects of music and O’r Pedwar Gwynt talks to J. M. Coetzee.
Leviathan defends Habermas’s theoretical style
Among the tributes to Jürgen Habermas this year, dissenting tones were occasionally audible. For some on the Left, Habermas’s theory of discursive democracy is a liberal project without critical potential. In Leviathan, philosopher Martin Saar counters criticisms of Habermas’s thought and defends a theoretical ‘style’ defined by openness and ambiguity.
Habermas’s early theory of communication was criticized for treating emancipation and consensus as ‘necessities’ of language. Not so: in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Habermas was arguing for a ‘critical-normative event with a processual character’, rather than simply ‘positing a norm’. Similarly, Habermas’s discursive theory of democracy has drawn the criticism of ultra-rationalism and lack of realism. However, ‘Habermas’s complex vision of politics has less of a positive thrust than might appear, because it identifies both the power and the fragility of the rational in politics.’
In around 2000, Having spent the previous two decades defending the ‘project of modernity’ against what he saw as the anti-rationalism of postmodernism, Habermas began arguing for the limits of post-metaphysical thought. This was no U-turn, however, but consistent with his longstanding concern with the possibility of constitutional democracy: concretely, ‘whether secularism or ideological tolerance, privatization of the religious or the active inclusion of religious civil societies are acceptable and fair ways of proceeding in plural societies.’ In this year’s two-volume history of western philosophy (Auch eine Geschichte der Philosophie), Habermas explores the emergence of rationalism from its antique and Christian roots. In the work, writes Saar, reason is neither ‘reluctantly dethroned nor declared the crowning moment in a history of modernist progress’.
Human rights: Liberals argue that the new nationalism threatens democracy. But such sweeping statements miss the real danger, argues Victor Kempf: that democracy and human rights become separated, and that the latter are equated with mere humanitarianism. ‘As objects of help and generosity, “foreigners” can be granted asylum, depending on availability of resources and their willingness to integrate. But the idea that an “asylum seeker” might be a subject who takes part in the political shaping of his or her destiny seems to be unthinkable.’ How, then, can the ‘powerlessness of human rights’ be overcome? By articulating a politics that links the interests of refugees and migrants with the ‘new underclass’ within European societies.
Representation: The parliamentary under-representation of women shows that equality of opportunity fails to deliver. Marina Martinez Mateo proposes a feminist theory of representation that avoids the traps of identity politics, while answering conservatives who claim that parliamentary gender quotas are anti-democratic and anti-liberal.
rekto:verso explores the internet
Flemish magazine rekto:verso reflects on the state of the internet, fifty years after its military conception as ARPANET. Now that we’ve reached the post-digital stage of the web, there’s no going back, write the editors. What is the new normal? Contributors show how memes and hashtags direct politics and everyday language and how the internet feeds into artistic disciplines including poetry, film and theatre.
Invisible labour: Digital culture researchers Piia Varis and Florian Cramer discuss how the internet came about and where it is headed. The internet is an all-pervading technology that goes almost completely unregulated; but keeping up technological appearances also requires constant labour. ‘One could speak of “artificial artificial intelligence”’, says Varis: ‘the systems might seem automated, but are in fact based on human work.’ Both policy, education, and the arts need to catch up and exert some control over technologies that are here to stay.
Gaming: The gaming universe is huge, not least in terms of profit, but it gains little attention outside of specialized media and academia. Hugues Makaba Ntoto explains how, ever since consoles were connected to the web, games have become the new common space. They are where people meet, interact and watch others play. New social codes emerge that spill over into mainstream culture — and not always in a good way, as with the Gamergate controversy. There is enormous potential for videogames to further transcend themselves, says Makaba Ntoto, but this calls for ‘honest introspection’ and perhaps something like ‘gaming literacy’.
Instapoets: A poetry collection preaching revolution that sells millions of copies? It seems unlikely, but Canadian ‘Instagram poet’ Rupi Kaur has pulled it off. According to Astrid Dewaele, Instagram poets go against the grain of the literary establishment: ‘the platform allows writers and readers to decide which posts get the poetry hashtag, thus breaking open the publishing industries and appropriating a genre that seemed impenetrable.’ Most of these poems are about self expression, emancipation and self-care. But far from being subversive, the poets abide by the algorithm, composing poems that are likeable and shareable, but also rather tame.
Positionen recommends the healing effects of music
The latest issue of contemporary music magazine positionen offers a collection of essays, reportages and interviews on the topic of musica sanae — healing through music.
Embodiment: Historian of medicine James Kennaway charts understandings of music’s relation to the human body and its health. In around 1700, he writes, music was commonly understood as stimulation of the nerves; theories of ‘nervous liquids and vibrations’ prefigured contemporary neuroscience. A century later, under the influence of idealism, this had changed: music was now to be actively ‘comprehended’. Theories of ‘absolute music’ posited a dichotomy between masculine spirit and feminine body that, via Romanticism, found its way into the Nazi concept of ‘degenerate art’. With the emergence of the listener as consumer, bourgeois disembodiment gave way to a new viscerality, as medical science rediscovered music’s healing potential.
Hypnosis: Tim Tetzner explores the rise of the hypnotic phonograph in the context of Cold War ‘psy-ops’. What took off the 1950s as a ‘gadget of domestic auto-suggestion’, used for weight reduction, stopping smoking and lowering one’s golf handicap, ‘can also be seen as part of a nascent self-help culture that promised self-empowerment and emancipation from hierarchical therapeutic relationships’. The 1960s saw the rise of the hypno-disc: soundless cardboard ‘records’ featuring spiral patterns. These encapsulated the phonograph’s essential function, argues Tetzner: to induce a state of ‘distraction and bewitchment’ — ‘just as the capitalist entertainment industry demands’.
Sci-fi and more: Dariusz Brzostek surveys sci-fi visions of extended sensory perception and the medical application of sound and music. ‘Hearing is both a means through which to observe the psychological and technological transformation of human beings as well as an effective instrument of social control.’ Also: Marta Michalska on the use of music in the nineteenth-century sanitorium; Karin Weissenbrunner on therapeutic aspects of contemporary music and sound art; and Julia Vorkefeld on ableism in musical high culture.
Altered states: Authors listen to contemporary musicians under the influence of natural and unnatural substances. Christian Grüny smokes grass to Gérard Grisey; Anneliese Ostertag microdoses acid to Terre Thaemlitz; Svenja Reiner listens to Brigitta Muntendorf on Hawaiian roseseeds; and Leif Rand appreciates C.A.R. after two expressos and an entire pack of the vitamin supplement E9.
O’r Pedwar Gwynt
O’r Pedwar Gwynt talks to J. M. Coetzee
Introducing her interview with South African novelist J. M. Coetzee, O’r Pedwar Gwynt editor Sioned Puw Rowlands reflects on the relevance of Coetzee’s work in our post-puritanical times. She recalls how every novel seems to be an attempt by Coetzee to question himself morally as much as creatively. What about the urge of readers to get closer to writers themselves, often at the expense of their work? Is it a means of avoiding the very personal challenge, which can only happen through reading, of opening oneself to authentic artistic engagement?
Incredible things: On the centenary of the birth of Iris Murdoch, Ned Thomas remembers interviewing the philosopher and writer in 1967 for a Russian publication, which he edited at the time. O’r Pedwar Gwynt publishes the interview, translated from Russian into Welsh. In an accompanying essay, Thomas re-reads Murdoch’s novels in the light of her essays. Why does this philosophical novelist consider herself to be a realist? ‘The most incredible things happen but the human perception is so limited that we make platitudes of these experiences.’
Nothing ever dies: Eluned Gramich writes on the fall of multiple walls — the Berlin Wall 30 years ago but also ‘the wall in our minds’ — in her essay ‘Dividing the sky’. Born in 1989 to German and Welsh parentage, Gramich reads the work of Peter Schneider and Christa Wolf alongside Viet Thanh Hguyen’sNothing Ever Dies, whilst reflecting on the ethics of memory, the relationship between state and identity, and the complexity of the division between East and West.
Brot in Snowdonia: By 1989, Angharad Price was long used to eating ‘Berliner Brot’ in the kitchen of her German teacher in Snowdonia. She remembers the distinctive friendship and understanding which developed between them during her school years, thanks to the lessons of grammar, which proved to be far more: ‘I came to see that learning a language was more than mastering vocabulary and grammar, but rather a matter of opening with humility to the experience of others.’
Charismatic politics: Associate editor Angharad Penrhyn Jones explores the relationship between the charismatic leader and the insecure follower: why is it that this shadowy relationship can lead us to the edge? Exploring the careers of Saddam Hussein, Silvio Berlusconi and Boris Johnson, she considers narcisissm, sociopathy and the rise of populism. And Howard Williams writes on revolution and the Romantic tendencies in British politics today: how can Kant’s concept of metamorphosis help us to understand and better navigate these ideological waters?