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Radical Philosophy Conference, Birckbeck College, 13th November, 1993

The Politics of Experience
Radical Philosophy Conference
Birkbeck College, London, 13 November 1993
If, as the cliche goes, a week is a long time in politics, a couple of
months is eternity itself when it comes to judging academic
conferences. Even in the best of cases, the arguments of the day,
stripped of their urgency, are quietly tucked away in some
suburban memory lane usually never to be disturbed again. I am
glad to report that the Radical Philosophy conference did not sink
without a trace. In retrospect, for those of us who braved our way
through the proponents of Living Marxism advertising an anti-PC
conference, through the disappointment of Etienne Balibar’s
absence (through illness) and the cups of bad and expensive
coffee, this conference was a chastening experience. The unspoken
theme was the challenge faced by the left in its attempt to
articulate a contemporary political discourse after Thatcher, the
fall of the Berlin wall, and post-modernism. At a time where quips
about the death of Marxism and the mishaps of historical
materialism adorn everything, from phone-in radio programmes
to chat shows, this was quite a challenge.

As Gregory Elliott pointed out in his introduction, in order to
achieve anything like a ‘Politics of Experience’ we must first
settle our account with history. In ‘The Politics of Time’, Peter
Osborne attempted to do that single-handedly. He argued that,
although we must steer clear of traditional teleological accounts
of historical evolution, it is still possible to formulate a praxisoriented historical narrative that is consistent with the requirement
for radical openness. Since philosophies of history are supposed
to come in two shapes, totalising or pluralistic, writing about
history without succumbing to such simple classifications is no
easy task. The key element in Osborne’s proposal was a nonlinear conception of temporality that is both resistant to closure
and allows for a kind of negative teleology loosely modelled after
Benjaminian Messianism. Unfortunately, this most ambitious
and complex part of the paper had to be curtailed to fit the schedule
and therefore it is difficult to judge the viability of the marriage of
totality and openness.

Susan Buck-Morss in ‘The Philosopher Among the Ruins:

History After the Cold War’ attempted an equally volatile and, as
it proved, precarious blend between fashion and structuralist
Marxism. Juxtaposing slides from communist and capitalist
Germany, Buck-Morss set out to show that fashion is not the
domain of pure whim but that it reflects the underlying economic
structures of society. It is rare to be in a position to say that a

conference paper was fun but Buck-Morss’ presentation certainl y
fell into that category. The combination of eloquent photographs
of empty shop-windows with a witty commentary provided an
insightful account of recent German history. Benj amin, however,
who was again invoked in this rehabilitation of the ephemeral, is
not an easy bedfellow with Althusser. If fashion is reduced to a
mere sign the whole exercise loses its poignancy; all that remains
is the pressing need of the left to respond to the present without
losing track of the past.

Carolyn Steedman interrogated historical narratives from a
feminist perspective and Raphael Samuel attempted to reclaim
theme-parks as a cheerful and irreverent way of relating to the
past. The villains of the piece for Samuel were the snooty critics
who look down on the gaudiness of heritage culture and tut-tut
this source of popular enjoyment and education. After John
Major’s misty-eyed evocation of warm beer it was refreshing to
hear that such pleasures cut across party politics. However, it is
hard to overlook that the heritage industry goes hand in hand with
a sanitised version of the past, and that part of the attraction is the
vicarious experience of comforting but dubious values. Although
it is frustrating that the appreciation of cultural heritage is
consistentl y presented as the exclusi ve prerogati ve of conservatism,
a ‘back to basics’ call is unconvincing and politically naive from
whatever quarter it comes. The incipient anti-intellectualism of
the trend which hankers after easy targets to achieve quick
popularity is eminently resistible. Culture, this time in the context
of cultural studies, was the subject of the last two papers by
Francis Mulhern and Benita Parry. Mulhern questioned the
assumption that politics and culture can be so readily related as
most recent theory tends to suppose. Parry expressed doubts
about difference or at least the trendy version of it that seems
rampant in some cultural studies departments.

It would have been disappointing if the only new ideas coming
out of this conference amounted to a good old-fashioned liberal
foil to highfalutin’ post-modernism or a good old-fashioned
mock-Tudor foil to replace high-minded modernism. All in all
though, I think that ‘The Politics of Experience ‘ was an instructive,
sobering and timely reminder that the demise of grand narratives
has left an open space that we should not be rushing headlong to

Katerina Deligiorgi

University of Agricultural Sciences,
22 – 26 June 1994

Godollo, Hungary

Participants include: Zygmunt Bauman, Gyorgy Bence, Ferenc Feher, Agnes Helier, Janos Kis
For further information contact: Darryl Reed, Economics Dept,
University of Agricultural Sciences, 2103-Godollo, Hungary
Tel: (3628) 310992 Fax: (3628) 310804 E-mail: H3433KGT@ELLA.HU


Radical Philosophy 67, Summer 1994

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