December 13, 2007

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Utopia's loss I've been reading (not systematically) Claude Lefort's Complications (Columbia University Press sent it to me during the summer). A chapter on utopia and tragedy has made me think, a little, about the ways the tragedy of Soviet communism has been formulated as the problem of utopia. The real error, the real mistake, was trying to realize utopian aspirations (to equality, primarily). Another way to make the same point: the socialist experiment was unrealistic. This is an odd and unconvincing criticism, one that rests too heavily on suppositions about human nature and the naturalness of inequality, private property, and capitalism. What is weighing on me now, though, is not this weak argument but its repercussions: politics is not a domain wherein greatness and excellence matter; utopias are dangerous delusions; reality demands the sacrifice and elimination of aspirations to something better. These repercussions have bearings on democratic theory: democracy is better because it is worse. That is, democracy is a preferable form of government, because it does not strive to instantiate or produce equality; it does not value greatness or excellence. The Churchill adage comes in here--the worst form of government, except for all the others. The ideological underpinning of this statement: democracy is the best form of government precisely because it is the worst. It gives up on utopia. That democracy is the loss of utopia appears throughout the history of political thought. Plato thinks of it as no constitution at all because it is the combination or aggregation of differing...
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Procedures There is a sensibility, a mindset or orientation, committed to the view that matters of power can be handled fairly through the proper procedures. Getting the process right, carefully establishing the rules of the game, is what really matters. An example from academia might be found in establishing clear expectations for tenure cases and a transparent, fair process for determining whether these expectations have been met. Proper procedures are supposed to replace the "old boys network" wherein privileged white men tenured their own. To be sure, promotion based on merit enforces capitalist preoccupations with output: is the scholar productive? does she efficiently use her time? is she contributing to her college or university as a brand that will attract 17 and 18 year olds? is she enabling students to identify with the college or university such that they will be generous donors in the future? At any rate, clear and fair tenure standards are, for academics, a crucial concern. Establishing standards is something else entirely: it requires oscillating between different positions, positions of acceptance, tolerance, and curiosity, on the one hand, and of suspicion and skepticism, on the other. The first often appears as "we all know what good scholarship is." But the supplement of this kind of claim is the well-justified suspicion that the notions of we, good, and scholarship are exclusionary and contentious--if one's field is stodgy and key sites of battle involve transforming what counts as scholarship within the field, then the expectation that a candidate for...

Jodi Dean

Jodi Dean is a political theorist.

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