Andrew W. Mellon Penn Faculty Fellow in the Humanities
2007—2008 Forum on Origins
Modern European History
Adventures of the Symbolic: French Postmarxism and Democratic Theory
The crisis of Marxism presents unprecedented challenges to political theorists trying to imagine radical political change. Jettisoning the Marxist base-superstructure model, postmarxists have participated in the broader ‘symbolic turn’ in twentieth-century French thought.This shift freed theorists from one type of determinism, but threatened to reinstate determinism in the symbolic order. The symbolic turn thus presents both opportunities and challenges for radical thinkers. Questioning how the symbolic order might be transformed, postmarxist theory turns to notions of historical indeterminacy, spontaneous rupture, historical creation, and the ‘Act’. These issues frequently bring postmarxism into proximity with theological discourse, thus complicating Marxism’s longstanding hostility to religion. For the ‘Origins’ seminar, I will explore this convergence through a study of the resurgence of the theological trope of ‘creatio ex nihilo’ in recent theory. What function does this play in avowedly ‘atheistic’ theorists like Zizek, Badiou, or Castoriadis? How are we to distinguish their usage from other recent revivals of this theme in a vocally ‘theistic’ movement like ‘Radical Orthodoxy’? What does this return imply for where ‘theory’ is now?