Someone Else’s Shoes and the Words of Politics

January 20th, 2015 No Comments

In recent times we have witnessed a two-way movement. On the one hand, words that had apparently been tucked away in the folds of history have made a forceful reappearance in public discourse. This, for example, is the case of “class”, which seems to have had its explanatory power restored, or “common” and “community”, which have not only recovered their original senses but have opened up a whole array of new meanings. On the other hand, some of the words we have traditionally used to describe and explain the world seem incapable now of accounting for the radical changes we are all experiencing. When we use them, we have the feeling of putting on someone else’s shoe: it is the perfect container for a foot which clearly isn’t ours.

The world we know has undergone far-reaching changes over the past few decades. Traditional ways of doing politics and the democratic institutions are suspect today and floundering in the midst of an unprecedented crisis of legitimacy. The situation is further complicated by the changes in scale, speed and perspective of a globalised world, and new, disconcerting relationships between identity, power, state and market. The decisive exposé in the form of the international financial crisis with its revelations concerning the conditions of neoliberal capitalism and depth of technological change have extended and, in some cases, forced the limits and possibilities of customary words and categories. In this regard, what is happening with the ideas of “equality”, “freedom”, “sovereignty”, “citizenship”, “state”, “work”, “capitalism” and “party”? In their standard formulation do they still help in making the world we share intelligible, and articulating and coordinating the sense of our actions? Which aspects of our experience and our surroundings remain hidden and which are illuminated when we use them? Which new senses and perspectives must we incorporate into our political present in order to re-focus, re-interpret and re-formulate it?

This year’s Barcelona Debate is an invitation to wield the word, to all of us to come together to rethink and renew its sense in order to make the world intelligible once more. Having one’s own word, refusing to be spoken for and acted for, is the subversive act par excellence, the most political statement. To use the words of Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition, “Power is actualized only where word and deed have not parted company, where words are not empty and deeds not brutal, where words are not used to veil intentions but to disclose realities, and deeds are not used to violate and destroy but to establish relations and create new realities”. In order to create the possibility for action, in order to be able to work together to transform our surroundings, we must be able, first and foremost, to express their sense in words. Wielding the word is, in brief, working together actively in this definition, uniting the plurality of voices in contributing towards repairing the battered sphere of politics and thereby to commit ourselves to the construction in solidarity of a world we can truly have in common.

Together with the research group Trajectories of Modernity (Tramod), led by the sociologist Peter Wagner, ICREA professor at the University of Barcelona, the CCCB has invited a group of international and local thinkers to reconsider some of the words and categories we habitually use to describe our shared experiences. Participants who will share their own experiences and ideas on these matters are Axel Honneth, Saskia Sassen, Fina Birulés, Albert Lladó, Manel Ollé, Isabella Gresser, Bo Stråth, Luc Boltanski, Montserrat Guibernau, Peter Wagner and Seyla Benhabib.

Axel Honneth (2009)

The opening lecture of the cycle, on Monday 26 January, is to be given by Axel Honneth, philosopher and sociologist, and director since 2001 of the Institute for Social Research, originally home to the Frankfurt School. In his lecture, titled “Three, Not Two Concepts of Liberty: The Idea of Social Freedom”, he will discuss the traditional distinction between “negative” and “positive” liberties and will argue the case for socially and cooperatively constructed “social freedom”. Along similar lines, the sociologist Saskia Sassen will describe on 2 February how new logics of expulsion have appeared in the global economy, and this is something that cannot be understood in terms of routine categories. To some extent continuing the arguments she presented when she spoke at the CCCB in 2011, her new book Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy (Belknap Press, 2014 – published in Spanish as Expulsiones. Brutalidad y Complejidad en la Economía Global, Katz, 2015), suggests that the abyss of inequality, unemployment, global forced displacementand the fast accelerating destruction of the environment have rendered us incapable of understanding in traditional terms the phenomena of poverty, inequality, injustice and present-day socioeconomic and environmental abnormalities.

In order to explore the complex relationship between individual and society, we shall take as our starting point the philosophy of  Byung-Chul Han, one of today’s most widely read non-fiction writers, putting his hypothesis of the “tiredness society” to the test in discussion with Fina Birulés, Albert Lladó, and Manel Ollé, as well in conversation with Isabella Gresser, who has made a hitherto unscreened documentary about the work of this South Korean thinker, which is to be shown on 9 February at the CCCB. The historian Bo Stråth will offer a critical review of the changing sense of the idea of “reform” and the relationship between capitalism and welfare. The sociologist Luc Boltanski will explore the ideas of value and criticism, while the Catalan political scientist Montserrat Gibernau will discuss the relationship between sovereignty and state. Finally, the sociologist Peter Wagner will raise the question as to whether there exist other forms of modernity and alternatives to the idea of progress as it is traditionally understood, and the philosopher Sayla Benhabib will offer keys to understanding how the notion of citizenship has changed in a global world where economic and citizen rights do not necessarily coincide.

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