21 May 2006

Speaking Across Idioms

I'm off to Scotland (been in the UK 9 months now and this will be the second trip to Scotland, but I've only crossed the border into England in order to take a plane to the states - note the nascent Welsh nationalism) in order to talk about 'normative violence' at a 'workshop' where almost everyone else will be talking about sovereignty. It's a workshop and not a conference because most or all participants are giving papers and everyone's paper was distributed beforehand. Thus, I have a lot of reading to do, and while working on some of it this afternoon I was struck in a particular way by the disconnect between academic and other-than-academic discourses.

You see, I was too busy panicking about life, so I missed the great imperialism debate over at Freedom from Blog. (If you missed it as well, then you can start with the link I gave you and work your way backwards.) I think most of the bases are already covered there, but it only hit me this afternoon: the entire debate went on with no one mentioning Hardt and Negri.

I imagine that the italics and bold are going to look really stupid to most readers of this blog, so let me just try to give you a sense of what I'm on about. For anyone in the tiny little field of contemporary political theory Hardt and Negri's Empire (2000) is THE BOOK. It's the biggest, most talked about text since...I don't know, KKV, Making Democracy Work, Theory of Justice...take your pick going backward in time.

I'm not going to try to summarise the 500 pages of Empire, but suffice it to say that the thesis of that book suggests that in the late-modern capitalist system neither the US nor any other country can be imperialist. Capitalism today forces the transfer of some national sovereignty to the needs of the flow of global capital, in such a way that no nation can have an empire. Now, this flow of global capitalism is, in fact, led by the US, but for H&N that explicitly does not make the US an imperial power like Britain or Rome.

I'm not making the case for Empire, since I think it's an overhyped, reductive, and highly disappointing text; it's the only book I've ever taken off the syllabus as the semester began. However, it is also a daring, imaginative and most of all suggestive text, one that has served to start a conversation about how we think about sovereignty and empire in a world where the nation-state looks nothing like it did in 1648. One cannot talk about any of these issues in contemporary political theory now without taking account of Hardt and Negri, and it seems to me that the discussion about America as the world super-power and possibly imperial power would actually be significantly aided by this new frame for thinking. It's too bad, then, that political theorists seem only to be talking to themselves.


tenaciousmcd said...

Maybe I dismissed the book unfairly, but from the reviews I read at the time, it was a poorly written, deeply confused mess, one that updated Leninist ideology for the age of globalization and that glamorized criminals and terrorists. Adding to its cache was that Negri himself may have been a terrorist (he was at least a sympathizer during the 1970s), and was serving some kind of jail time for terrorist activities, although maybe not actually in a "jail."

I can't say I like ad hominems, but this does seem like a relevant bit of history for evaluating the political judgment of its authors. In any event, after 9/11 can you still offer a casual celebration of anti-Western violence and be taken seriously as "THE BOOK"?

Number Three said...

I thought about this book during the debate, but didn't raise it for two reasons: (1) The debate on FFB was more about how Americans themselves view the imperialism question, as I saw the debate, rather than about how imperialism works today. (2) I haven't read the book, or THE BOOK, and thus would have been writing about reviews I read, too--like TMcD.

I guess this shows one of my intellectual failings, and that is that I have little patience for postmodern Marxist explanations for, well, anything. As a committed liberal and rationalist, that is, my intellectual commitments really pointed me against reading THE BOOK. And that shows a level of intellectual un-curiosity I find disturbing, or would, in someone else.

tenaciousmcd said...

Ditto to Emery's sentiments, especially in his second paragraph, although I'm less a committed "liberal" than he is. I'd add that if there are books I'm sorry to have left out of the debate, they're probably Hannah Arendt's Origins of Totalitarianism (section 2, "Imperialism") and Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities. But I may have something to say about those at a later date.