Adventures of the Symbolic

Post-Marxism and Radical Democracy

Warren Breckman

Columbia University Press

Adventures of the Symbolic

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Pub Date: December 2015

ISBN: 9780231143950

376 Pages

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Pub Date: June 2013

ISBN: 9780231143943

376 Pages

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Pub Date: June 2013

ISBN: 9780231512893

376 Pages

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Adventures of the Symbolic

Post-Marxism and Radical Democracy

Warren Breckman

Columbia University Press

Marxism's collapse in the twentieth century profoundly altered the style and substance of Western European radical thought. To build a more robust form of democratic theory and action, prominent theorists moved to reject revolution, abandon class for more fragmented models of social action, and elevate the political over the social. Acknowledging the constructedness of society and politics, they chose the "symbolic" as a concept powerful enough to reinvent leftist thought outside a Marxist framework. Following Maurice Merleau-Ponty's Adventures of the Dialectic, which reassessed philosophical Marxism at mid century, Warren Breckman critically revisits these thrilling experiments in the aftermath of Marxism.

The post-Marxist idea of the symbolic is dynamic and complex, uncannily echoing the early German Romantics, who first advanced a modern conception of symbolism and the symbolic. Hegel and Marx denounced the Romantics for their otherworldly and nebulous posture, yet post-Marxist thinkers appreciated the rich potential of the ambiguities and paradoxes the Romantics first recognized. Mapping different ideas of the symbolic among contemporary thinkers, Breckman traces a fascinating reflection of Romantic themes and resonances, and he explores in depth the effort to reconcile a radical and democratic political agenda with a politics that does not privilege materialist understandings of the social. Engaging with the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss, Cornelius Castoriadis, Claude Lefort, Marcel Gauchet, Ernesto Laclau, Chantal Mouffe, and Slavoj Žižek, Breckman uniquely situates these important theorists within two hundred years of European thought and extends their profound relevance to today's political activism.
A book that will appeal to many different constituencies—intellectual historians, political theorists, devotees of French theory, Marxists and post-Marxists, and humanists interested in the role of symbolism in culture—and is certain to become a canonical text in our field. Martin Jay, University of California, Berkeley
Historians of modern thought will benefit from Breckman's novel integration of numerous recent philosophers into a convincing framework stretching from German Idealism to the present, while political theorists will reckon with this rich survey of the left in recent decades as they deliberate about its future. Samuel Moyn, author of The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History
Breckman provides a magisterial critical survey of the uses, abuses, and disuses of the concept of the symbolic. His analysis is careful and far-ranging, with special emphasis on post-Marxism, the 'linguistic turn,' and such important figures as Merleau-Ponty, Althusser, Baudrillard, Castoriadis, Lefort, Lévi-Strauss, Lacan, Gauchet, Laclau, Mouffe, and Žižek. Breckman's account of the thought of these and other figures is enlivened by the fact that he does not limit himself to safe objectifications of the 'other' but undertakes dialogic (or open dialectical) engagements worked over by genuine concern with the problems and political implications at issue. Dominick LaCapra, Cornell University
Adventures of the Symbolic is a trailblazing journey into forbidding terrain. It addresses one of the most controversial and fascinating trends in postwar European social thought—the dismantling of the Marxian paradigm and the emergence of a new species of theory that casts light on the radically open and postfoundational character of democracy. Castoriadis, Lefort, Laclau, Mouffe, Gauchet, Žižek—these are names to conjure with, but to understand their contributions is another thing entirely. Warren Breckman has the rare combination of theoretical lucidity and political acumen to guide us on this adventure. His achievement is simply stunning, a genuine milestone in the history of twentieth-century political thought. Peter E. Gordon, Harvard University, author of Continental Divide: Heidegger, Cassirer, Davos
In addition to offering a valuable and significant account of the politics associated with what Breckman calls "the symbolic turn"… the book marks an exceptional effort to render intellectual history useful for the purposes of democratic theory. American Historical Review
Foreword, by Dick Howard
Acknowledgments
Introduction: Post-Marxism and the Symbolic Turn
1. The Symbolic Dimension and the Politics of Young Hegelianism
2. The Fate of the Symbolic from Romantic Socialism to a Marxism in extremis
3. From the Symbolic Turn to the Social Imaginary: Castoriadis's Project of Autonomy
4. Democracy Between Disenchantment and Political Theology: French Post-Marxism and the Return of Religion
5. The Post-Marx of the Letter: Laclau and Mouffe Between Postmodern Melancholy and Post-Marxist Mourning
6. Of Empty Places: Žižek and Laclau
Epilogue
Notes
Index

Read Dick Howard's foreword to Adventures of the Symbolic:

About the Author

Warren Breckman is the Rose Family Endowed Term Professor of modern European intellectual history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Marx, the Young Hegelians, and the Origins of Radical Social Theory: Dethroning the Self and European Romanticism: A Brief History with Documents. He is also executive coeditor of the Journal of the History of Ideas.