The following article first appeared in the October issue of Insurgent Notes. Zahedi’s article is a review, so I added a title that I believe captures its main argumentative arc.
Arya Zahedi is an MA in Political Science at the New School for Social Research in Manhattan. His areas of interest include political theory, revolutions, social movements, and modern Iran.
…..……Thinking Past Terror: Islamism and
……….….…………Critical Theory on the Left
The current global crisis has once again brought the questions of global struggle and world revolution into a position of importance. The basic questions posed are whether it is possible to build a “global Left” and how to rethink the idea of universal human liberation, which was the utopia once central to the left, and which has perhaps re-emerged once again. The unity of the world is indeed clearest to us in times of crisis. Susan Buck-Morss’s book on the relationship between critical theory and political Islam is an interesting and important contribution to this discussion, as it attempts to create a dialogue between critical thought in the “west” and that within the Islamic world. In keeping with her previous work on Hegel and the Haitian Revolution [Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History (2009), Zahedi is somewhat off in the chronology], she attempts to resurrect and redeem the idea of universality after it had become a bad word among many in the academic activist milieu. Although the book was published some time ago, its relevance has only increased.
The loss of any conception of human universality, especially as it relates to the political struggle, has affected the understanding of social revolution. Many events have occurred since the publication of the book that demonstrate the importance of returning to the discussion of the world revolution and the universal subject that is supposed to be the agent of this revolution. Events such as the “Arab Spring” and the Iranian “Green Movement,” the riots and strikes against austerity, the unrest in Brazil in the midst of the World Cup qualifiers, Occupy Wall Street, all demonstrate some sort of global shift.
For the past twenty to thirty years, it has been almost an article of faith that any attempt to posit a universal subject should be looked upon with scorn. Indeed the word has been associated with another taboo word, “humanism.” Any advocacy of either one can be attacked for essentialism, Euro-centrism, or Orientalism, at best, and in extreme cases, even totalitarianism. One of the strengths of Buck-Morss’s approach is that she is not satisfied with just positing a universal subject from the past and dismissing the variety of these critiques, particularly that of the Eurocentric conception of the universal subject. She doesn’t just resurrect an old conception of universality; she attempts to point towards a new way of thinking about universality and the promise of human liberation. She attempts to develop an understanding of universality that remains critical of Euro-centrism.
The book carries on a theoretical struggle to understand the negotiation between universality and difference. But while the questions Buck-Morss asks are of great importance, and indeed correct in my opinion, the conclusions she draws and the method she uses to get there are way off the mark. Continue reading