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Social Imaginaries

Volume 4
Festschrift for Peter Wagner

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1. Social Imaginaries: Volume > 4 > Issue: 2
Jeremy C A Smith, Paul Blokker, Natalie J. Doyle Editorial Introduction
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themed section: american imaginaries
2. Social Imaginaries: Volume > 4 > Issue: 2
Wolfgang Knöbl ‘Civilizing’ the Americas! A concept goes West!
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As is well known, the concept of civilization and all the imaginaries around this term played an important role in imperial contexts insofar as mostly Western states legitimated their oftentimes ruthless behaviour in other parts of the world by referring to their ‘civilizing missions’. What is not so well-known, however, at least not in the so-called West, is that the concept of ‘civilization’ also played an enormous role in conflicts within (‘Western’) societies, conflicts that were not necessarily shaped by racial categories. The article shows how the concept of ‘civilization’ came into being in France in the middle of the 18th century before it spread into other European languages and—by doing so—slightly changed its meanings depending on peculiar socio-political contexts. Such a change of meaning also happened, of course, when the concept was adopted in the Americas. Contrasting the cases of the United States of America on the one hand and ‘Argentina’ on the other, it will be demonstrated how and why intellectuals in the first half of the 19th century made use of this concept and changed it according to the conflicts they perceived as vital in their interpretation of their own society. Tracing the intercontinental history of the concept makes it again clear how tricky it might be to use ‘civilization’ and ‘civilizations’ as analytical tools in order to theorize historical paths and patterns in different parts of the world.
3. Social Imaginaries: Volume > 4 > Issue: 2
Jeremy C A Smith North America’s Metropolitan Imaginaries
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Scholars of modernity have taken a particular interest in processes of urbanization and—thinking of Simmel, Benjamin, Mumford and Weber—the character of different varieties of city. From a different angle, notions of urban imaginary have gained greater purchase in the field of contemporary urban studies in comparative analysis of varieties of city. This essay begins with notes on both classical accounts of the city in social theory and current concepts of urban imaginaries. The notes revolve around the essay’s main topic: the institution of cities of New World, specifically those of the United States and Canada. Paralleling Castoriadis’ conception of the imaginary institution, the present author argues for a more exact notion of metropolitan imaginaries, differentiated from the broader subject of urban imaginaries. ‘Metropolitan imaginaries’ denotes processes of urbanization at the heart of networks of migration, transport, and flows of capital and culture. As part of larger imaginaries, metropolises generate immigrant cities. The specific kind of creation in question produces creativity also by concentrating intellectual and creative schools of design in architecture and visual culture. In sum, metropolises are not merely part of networks of connection and creation; they produce networks and act as the hubs of interaction and creativity within larger social imaginaries. The essay explores this argument in the contexts of US and Canadian modernity and state formation, with specific foci on New York, Chicago, and Toronto. The conclusion notes two limitations to the case presented here and sketches planned directions for future research.
4. Social Imaginaries: Volume > 4 > Issue: 2
Martín Plot Political Horizons in America
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In this paper, I go back to French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s influence on Claude Lefort’s theory of democracy in order to offer a revised understanding of political regimes as coexisting and competing horizons of politics. These horizons develop from differing positions regarding the political enigma of the institution of society—its staging, its shaping, and its making sense of itself. A theological understanding of such political institution of society will be described as fundamentally voluntaristic, while an epistemic understanding will be described as, in its radical iteration, potentially totalitarian. This theorization is triggered by an interpretive perplexity: what happened to the United States in the aftermath of 9/11, in its War on Terror, in its committing of the supreme international crime of aggressive warfare, in its embracement of a massive policy of executive, global targeted assassinations and of a white nationalist, xenophobic politics? Is the theologico-political horizon becoming once again dominant in America? Is the epistemic, plutocratic regime taking over instead? Are they coordinated in their effort to undermine an egalitarian understanding of the American republic? These are the interrogative driving forces behind this investigation.
5. Social Imaginaries: Volume > 4 > Issue: 2
Gustavo Morello Latin America’s Contemporary Religious Imaginary
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This paper explores how the unfulfilled promises of modernity, both of security and prosperity, affect the Latin American religious imaginary. I study the idea of a ‘religious social imaginary’ not only as a theoretical construct, but also as an interpretative tool to analyze empirical data. This imaginary is composed of an image of the divine in relationship with humanity, a set of cultural practices that shape these interactions, and the expression of a moral order that mirrors this construction of divinity. I use a nonrandom sample of 12 in-depth, semi-structured life history and object elicitation interviews with poor Latin Americans from Córdoba, Argentina, Montevideo, Uruguay, and Lima, Peru. Latin Americans of low income and limited educational backgrounds are the best informants for this study because they are, paradoxically, both the people modernity left behind as well as the popular image of a threat to modernity’s benefits for the rest of the population. I find that the participants construct an image of an accessible, intimate divinity that provides both companionship and protection, which manifests in other people as well as objects, and requires believers to embody these same caring characteristics. I propose that the construction of this contemporary Latin American religious imaginary is not only a response to the unique experience of modernity in the region, but also a tool of resistance against the hegemony inherent in modernity.
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6. Social Imaginaries: Volume > 4 > Issue: 2
Peter Wagner Social and Political Philosophy, Historical-Comparative Sociology and the Critical Diagnosis of the Present: a Reply
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In reply to the contributions to Social Imaginaries vol. 4, no. 1, this article reviews the development of the research programme that the author has been pursuing over more than three decades. It places the emphasis on the conceptual and methodological requirements for a historical sociology of social change. It insists, on the one hand, on the need to avoid overly strong conceptual presuppositions to analyze social phenomena of large scale and long duration, while, on the other hand, sustaining the notion that a minimum of social and political philosophy as well as philosophy of history is necessary to comprehend the ways in which history is directed. Further emphasis is given to the difficulties that arise when studying social phenomena before 1800 and outside Europe, due to the strong epistemic impact European global domination has had since the “great divergence” at around 1800. The article concludes with reflections on the adequate kind of conceptual distinctions that are needed when analyzing large-scale phenomena such as “societies” as well as on the link between scholarly work and a critical, action-oriented diagnosis of the present time.
7. Social Imaginaries: Volume > 4 > Issue: 2
Dmitri Nikulin The Eternal Return of the Other: Benjamin on the Social and Political Effects of Boredom in Modernity
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This article investigates the constitutive ties of modernity and the modern subject to the phenomenon of boredom, through its interpretation by Walter Benjamin. The nineteenth century—with Paris as its capital—forms the material for this interpretation, and the fragmentary constellations of quotation and reflection in Convolute D of The Arcades Project present boredom both in its social aspect (the city as protagonist) and as experience. A number of the forms of boredom is thus elaborated: the relation of city dweller to nature and the cosmos, as weather; in its temporal orientation, as waiting; the mechanistic character of the modern world and its subject, as repetition; in the cycles of production and consumption, as the ideological boredom of the ruling class. Among three of Benjamin’s typologies for the bored modern subject—the gambler, the flaneur, and the one who waits—I turn particularly to the experience of the flaneur, the dedicatee of Convolute D. In flaneurie the experience of boredom is accumulated and distributed, and in this way the flaneur is in the city but also constitutes and memorializes it, as boredom. This ambivalent relation to the urban fabric and landscape is also captured in his characteristic observation and exhibition, his consumption without acquisition and without production. After considering some possible antitheses to Benjamin’s types of boredom, I conclude with the reflection that passing over boredom to its opposite would require the overcoming of modern subjectivity itself.
8. Social Imaginaries: Volume > 4 > Issue: 2
Aaron C. McKeil The Modern International Imaginary: Sketching Horizons and Enriching the Picture
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This article aims to bridge the literature of modern social imaginaries with the growing study of modernity in International Relations. Employing a Taylorian conceptual framework and account, the case is made for understanding modern international relations as enabled and constrained by a “modern international imaginary”, which forms a significant part of the modern social imaginary more generally. It is argued that a modern social imaginaries approach offers a means to deepen and enlarge the growing studies of the international implications of modernity, by illuminating overlooked cultural preconditions and forms of modern international relations. First, a social imaginaries approach reveals the international to be coeval with the emergence of modern social imaginaries in general, and that it has come to form their “highest” and most consistently and severely problematic realm. Second, its insight into the enabling and constraining effects of social imaginaries offers a basis for studying the horizons of the international towards a “global imaginary”. Third, unpacking the modern international imaginary offers qualitative benefits for international theory as practice.
notes and discussion
9. Social Imaginaries: Volume > 4 > Issue: 2
Johann P Arnason Spaces, Connections, Civilizations: Comments on Debating Civilisations
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10. Social Imaginaries: Volume > 4 > Issue: 2
Nicolas Poirier Castoriadis in Australia: Interview with Suzi Adams
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11. Social Imaginaries: Volume > 4 > Issue: 1
Gerard Rosich, Angelos Mouzakitis Introduction
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12. Social Imaginaries: Volume > 4 > Issue: 1
À. Lorena Fuster, Gerard Rosich Mapping an Intellectual Trajectory: From Modernity to Progress via World-Sociology
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This article aims to offer an interpretation of the work of Peter Wagner based on a genealogical reconstruction of his intellectual trajectory. It aims at opening routes for future mappings of his impressive work. Firstly, it addresses the main elements of his theory of modernity, which reached its definitive form during the work he carried out in the research programme Trajectories of modernity initiated in 2010. Secondly, an interpretation of his recent shift of focus from modernity to world-sociology is proposed. At the beginning of the 21st century, social theory faces the same kind of problems that at the beginning of 19th led to a particular way of investigating the social realm through the invention of the concept of ‘society’. The main difference between both situations is the extraordinary increase in the degrees of global interdependence, which situates the concept of ‘world’ in the same methodological position that the concept of ‘society’ had in the 19th century, once the contours that justified the methodological use of this concept were completely transformed by the events of the 20th century. Finally, how to interpret his more recent work on the notion of progress against the background of this shift of focus from modernity to world-sociology will be discussed. The task of reconstructing an idea of progress suitable for our times is analogous to his work on providing an interpretation why the ‘world’ has become the main structuring dimension of our social life.
13. Social Imaginaries: Volume > 4 > Issue: 1
Luc Boltanski Historical Sociology and Sociology of History
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Reading A Sociology of Modernity made me turn again towards history and encounter the path of a historical sociology. One can say that Peter Wagner´s work opens up particularly rich perspectives towards a new consideration of the complex relations between sociology and history and on the consequences that the internal movements within each discipline have had on the other. I shall approach some issues regarding these relations by looking, first, at the theme of temporality and at the distinction between the past and a present (often turned towards the horizon of the future) and, second, at the theme of the events and their frequent contradistinction to structures.
14. Social Imaginaries: Volume > 4 > Issue: 1
Aurea Mota World-Sociology Beyond Eurocentrism: Considerations on Peter Wagner’s Theory of Modernity
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In his recent work Peter Wagner has dealt with understandings of modernity in different world regions. He has expanded the analysis of modern transformations in Europe to parts of the Southern world. This turn in his work has been a response to challenges about the development of Western modernity, including his own earlier arguments. This article explores some features of Wagner’s recent research on the Brazilian, European and South African trajectories of modernity and his proposal for a world-sociology. The aspects of his work that I am especially interested in are: i) the establishment of the Atlantic connection for the ‘enablement’ of the modern transformation in the nineteenth century; ii) the question about the spaces where experiences happen and the interpretation of temporal transformations and historical continuities. As a sociologist who takes a classical approach to the analysis of historical transformations, Wagner has developed a conception of trajectories of modernity using the notion of societal self-understanding to challenge both conceptually and empirically the presuppositions of communality and continuity assumed as guiding ideas to account for difference in the modern world. I explore in this article the advantages of Wagner’s unorthodox sociological perspective that is to propose both a general understanding of autonomy as key features to comprehend historical transformation and to show how reflexivity opens up a variety of ways of being in the world.
15. Social Imaginaries: Volume > 4 > Issue: 1
Svjetlana Nedimović To Restore the Sense of Future: ‘Street-reading’ of Peter Wagner’s understanding of the present and how things (are to) start making sense
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Contemporary socio-political praxis has an ambivalent relationship with scholarly pursuits in social sciences. On the one hand, there has been a considerable increase of (institutional) pressure upon scientists to produce models and recommendations over the second half of the 20th century. On the other, transformations of the world have proved resilient to modelling as well as to grand theoretical narratives, to the point which rendered them conceptually unintelligible and normatively overwhelming to social sciences. This has had various consequences in different spheres. For those involved in direct transformative action across the world, it often spells lack of interpretative tools, measuring instruments and normative orientation beyond the framework of their immediate experiences and action. The paper will seek to uncover how historical-interpretative engagement with the present, which Peter Wagner undertakes in his book on progress (2016), coincides with an experience and interpretation of ‘street politics’ from one corner of the world at a moment of the present. By mapping this coincidence, voyaging most arbitrarily through academic and non-adacemic writings as well as the accounts of contemporary practice of various new movements in post-2008 world, I will try to demonstrate how Wagner’s work at conceptual reconstruction and historical sociology of the present can help understand and situate immediate and localized human efforts towards the reconstitution of the world. It is a testimony to the possibilities of developing anew a vibrant relationship between contemporary academia and praxis far beyond the vulgar automatic translation of conceptual narratives into daily policies or ideological programmes.
16. Social Imaginaries: Volume > 4 > Issue: 1
Ivor Chipkin Sovereignty and Government in Africa after Independence
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This essay is a contribution to the field of institutional studies in that it treats the State as a substantial phenomenon, composed of institutions that require analysis in their own right. Here, the focus is on the political form of African states from the 1960s to the 1980s. On the one hand, I will follow Bourdieu here in insisting that the study of government demands that we know something of the history of political thought (la pensée politique). This simple observation is seldomly applied when it comes to politics in postcolonial Africa. On the other, I use Peter Wagner´s concept of modernity to show that struggles against colonialism and Imperialism and the pursuit of self-determination for African and Asian peoples are unambiguously struggles against domination and for autonomy. The emergence of Third World nationalism (and the Non-Aligned Movement) is an event, therefore, firmly in modernity. So too is the phenomenon of the One-party state in Africa.
17. Social Imaginaries: Volume > 4 > Issue: 1
Bo Stråth The Social Question and the Concepts of Progress and Freedom
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A key concept in Peter Wagner’s academic production is modernity, and the thought that modernity is experience and interpretation is central. Not the historical and social facts as such but the interpretation of them is the motor of modernity. The way Wagner understands history as interpretation and struggle for superiority of interpretation brings him close to the historical philosophy of Reinhart Koselleck, which is based on two fundamental conceptual couples: experiences and expectations, and critique and crisis. If interpretation constitutes the mode to approach modernity, the question remains of what the phenomenon we are approaching really is. What is modernity? Wagner’s answer is that the imaginary of being autonomous is the core of modernity. From this point of departure, the chapter discusses the distinction between individual and collective autonomy, highlighted by what since the 1830s has been referred to as the social question, under connection to the concepts of freedom and progress. The conclusion links up with Wagner’s recent emphasis on the dynamics between protest against and defence of domination.
18. Social Imaginaries: Volume > 4 > Issue: 1
Axel Honneth How to Envision Social Progress Today?: On Peter Wagner’s Progress: A Reconstruction
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It seems evident that ‘progress’ is a necessary and unavoidable perspective for all those of us today who aim at revitalizing emancipatory action. How could it be possible to start to thinking about the first steps to take in enhancing our present situation without a rough idea of the direction those steps are supposed to follow; since all emancipation is meant to bring about some kind of improvement of the existing living-conditions or an increase in human freedom, it seems justified to say that at least a vague anticipation of what such ‘improvement’ or ‘increase’ would consist in is an inevitable requirement for engaging in such practices. Against this background, the article will discuss Peter Wagner’s notion of progress.
19. Social Imaginaries: Volume > 4 > Issue: 1
Johann P. Arnason Questioning Progress: Retreat, Revision or Revival?
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The paper discusses some aspects of Peter Wagner’s argument in Progress: A Reconstruction, and relates them to the work of other authors, especially Hans Blumenberg and Marcel Gauchet. Blumenberg’s view on the Christian background to modern ideas of progress, as consisting in inherited questions rather than persisting beliefs in new guise, is accepted; it serves to contextualize the diverse and changing understandings of progress. They develop in interaction with the legacy of traditions, the unexpected and challenging results of growing knowledge, and the dynamics unfolding in different spheres of social life. The political sphere, where progress can be reinterpreted in terms of revolution and become a theme of political religions, is a particularly significant context. In that regard, the question of Communism and the need to examine its trajectory more closely is raised. This historical experience has a general bearing on the problematic of progress; it also concerns the particular turn taken after World War II, with the rise of Communist China, which had major implications for perspectives on progress. On a more general level, the issue of totalitarian regimes and their complicated links to the democratic imaginary should be included in a comprehensive discussion of progress and its paradoxes. Here Marcel Gauchet’s conception of democracy as a mixed regime proves to be helpful. The final conclusion is that present conditions suggest a more pessimistic view of progress than the one proposed by Wagner.