Friday, May 28, 2010

Historical Opportunity: Marx, Heidegger, Benjamin

Two of our contributors will be participating in a round-table at the Canadian Philosophical Association's annual meeting next week. Matt McLennan, Devin Zane Shaw, and their colleague David Tkach (also completing his PhD at the University of Ottawa) will be discussing "Historical Opportunity" in the works of Marx and Marxism, Heidegger, and Benjamin. We've included a partially updated version of their panel description below (the original is here in PDF format):
The collapse of Communist regimes in the late 80s and early 90s seemed to have offered a stark choice between two competing philosophies of history. On the one hand, grand narratives of progress and emancipation were claimed to have definitively foundered, leaving in their wake a plurality of individual viewpoints and social micro-histories (Lyotard). The collapse of Communism was also read in precisely the opposite way, as heralding the triumph of a grand narrative of historical progress, specifically that of liberal democracy (Fukuyama).
McLennan, Tkach and Shaw begin from the intuition that each option, starkly posed, misses something vital: a proper assessment of the concept of historical opportunity. Events since the collapse of Communism (the rise of religious fundamentalisms, the current crisis of capitalism) fuel the suspicion that we have neither reached the end of the era of grand narratives, nor properly accounted for the power of competing micro-histories. For theoretical and practical reasons, the present historical conjuncture renders a critical re-visitation of the “happy 90s” of utmost importance.
Matthew McLennan
Presenting a grand narrative of historical progress alongside an emphatic insistence on the importance of human agency, the works of Marx contain fascinating material for the philosopher of history. The seeming tension between determinism and freedom at the heart of his work has led to widely divergent interpretations of Marx, from the more or less deterministic, evolutionary historical picture of German Social Democracy and the Second International, to the voluntarism of Lenin, Luxemburg and Guevara. McLennan begins the proposed roundtable by arguing that Marx‟s philosophy of history is not only consistent, to the extent that the tension between determinism and freedom is only apparent, but also that it better lends itself to interpretations tending towards voluntarism. More specifically, after showing to what extent Marx was able to square his notion of the end of history with his emphasis on human agency, McLennan offers an argument that the Leninist notion of historical intervention, of “hitting upon the right moment”, was a more faithful application of Marx in its day than was that of the evolutionist faction of German Social Democracy and the Second International; this will set the stage for Shaw and Tkach‟s contributions by suggesting that Germany missed its opportunity to grasp the concept of historical opportunity, at least in the way Marx intended. Finally, tentative reflections will be offered with regard to the question of how such an interpretation of Marx might figure in an approach the present historical conjuncture.
Update: Matt adds a more recent abstract:
Matt McLennan surveys the development of Marxist philosophies of history, providing a schematic interpretation. Weighing in on where he thinks the emphasis of a properly Marxian philosophy should lie with respect to the question of historical opportunity (i.e. the "right moment" for revolutionary or militant activity) as well as that of eschatology or "the end of history", he argues that the most important advances in recent Marxism come from David Harvey. The notion of historical opportunity is enriched via Harvey to include a necessary spatio-geograpihical dimension; essentially, historical opportunity is interpreted as meaning that there is a "right space-time" for revolution.
 David Tkach
David Tkach's paper is a close reading of several sections of Heidegger's Being and Time, conducted in order to outline the problem of 'historical opportunity' in relation to the understanding of political action derivable from that work. In light of the book's three interrelated concepts of historicity, freedom, and the eschatological understanding of death in relation to Heidegger's understanding of a people [ein Volk], the result for the purposes of the round table is ultimately to call into question any possibility of political action that is directed toward a better situation for everyone. Thus, in contradistinction to certain attempts to rehabilitate aspects of Heidegger's book for ostensibly 'progressive' political purposes, Tkach concludes that it is at least problematic, not to say impossible, to do so.
Devin Zane Shaw
Shaw argues that class struggle is central to Walter Benjamin's concept of history. It is Benjamin's solidarity with the oppressed class that drives his critique of progress, and that orients his discussion of the legibility of dialectical images. It is only when an image is recognized as an image of emancipation that the history of its transmission becomes legible. Thus history is not the site of realizing Progress (Soviet Marxism), nor is it the site of a recovery of a past or heritage that has been covered over by an inauthentic understanding of history (Heidegger). History can only be written by blasting the events of the past out of the continuum of linear (or as Benjamin states, "empty, homogenous") historical time. Only then is it possible to clearly evaluate the documents of culture as both redemptive and barbaric.
BE prepared to get up bright and early; the panel is on Tueday, June 1st, from 9:00 ­ 12:30 in MB ­ S2-455 -- which we hear is the John Molson School of Business building.

In addition, Devin will present a paper at this year's meeting of the Society for Existential and Phenomenological Theory and Culture, on Wednesday, June 2nd, from 3:40-4:50pm at EV 2-204. He will be presenting:

"Cartesian Reversals: Badiou and Heidegger on Mathematics and Modernity"
This paper examines the relationship between philosophy, ontology (or onto-theology) and mathematics an in the work of Martin Heidegger and Alain Badiou. Despite Badiou's praise for Heidegger's 'subtraction' of truth from the domain of epistemology, he attacks Heidegger's equation of mathematics with the essence of modern technology. Against Heidegger, Badiou shows that mathematics thinks ontology, because it must decide on what is. He does this by drawing the philosophical consequences of the continuum hypothesis. I argue that these consequences undermine Heidegger's connection between poeisis and ontology and his claims about the essence of technology. If mathematics is a thought, it cannot be essentially a projection of calculation into being or equated with the essence of technology.

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