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The Answer is Blowing in the Wind—Giacomo Marramao Responds (Part Two)

Giacomo Marramao28 January 2016

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Concluding our series on Giacomo Marramao's The Passage West: Philosophy After the Age of the Nation State we present the second part of Marramao's response to the collection of essays on his book on politics, philosophy, and declining state sovereignty that appeared in a recent issue of Política común. The first part of his response can be read hereMartin Jay's response to The Passage West can be read here.

To me Europe is, like Latin America, a non-place, a boundary line along which we experiment a multiple universal. In his illuminating comparison of my perspective to Alfonso Reyes’s “regiomontano universal”, Pedro Ángel Palou understands my point very well. The pressing issue is to break the binomials of cosmopolitism-hegemony and of culture-identity, replacing them with our invention of a politics that effects change along the threshold running between the inside and the outside. This politics will destabilize all instances of identitarian unilateralism, regardless of whether they are global or local. It will shape our planetary “pluriverse” in the paradoxical and dynamic form of a “disjunctive synthesis” where the Commonwealth and the Singular feed one another in a constant virtuous circle. For this reason I gratefully concur with Palou when at the end of his brilliant and instructive contribution he points out that “la inteligencia americana” and “the passage West” are “two ways to tackle the same challenge: a politics that recognizes the insufficiency of univocal universalisms and specificities”.

As Carlos Rodríguez notes, we should think the as-of-yet unthought-of universalism as a way to avoid the forms it took in Western history, namely those of “domination”, “incorporation”, or “assimilation” of the particular. My gratitude goes out to him as well for clarifying the non-Eurocentric sense in which I conceive the “passage”. Arguing in favor of a “Westernization of the world” is definitely not part of my project. Not in the least, because this passage has already been causing profound changes in the socio-cultural fabric, in the lifestyles, and in the forms of relationships of that very same Western world, i.e. right at the core of its metropolitan or “post-metropolitan” centers. I see a shift in which other areas of the planet such as Asia and Latin America also enter a radically new relationship with the world-system; one I can no longer reduce to the imperialistic logic of subalternity and dependency.

On this topic, the perspective I express in my book intersects with one of Hardt and Negri’s salient theses. To comprehend the new structure of the global it is necessary to clearly demarcate the notion of Empire from the concept of imperialism that still typifies some antiquated forms of Marxism. Unlike Hardt and Negri, however, I do not think the complex and conflictual network of interdependencies they call “Empire” are endowed with any forms of “sovereignty”. As I argued in the book, I find the adoption of such a term not only conceptually unsustainable but also inconsistent with the image of globalization they depict.

I will now briefly clarify two aspects of my project: (i) I consider the perspective of a transnational democracy to be not “subordinated to ethics” but motivated in terms that are political; (ii) my idea of a “global Constitutionalism” implies a clear-cut break with the concepts of sovereignty and of global State, which are intrinsically authoritarian and not just potentially so, as Rodríguez points out. My proposal goes in the direction of an arrangement of polycentric, open, cooperative-conflictual powers exerting a mutual control on each other; of a system that is not static-vertical but dynamic-horizontal, where, as Machiavelli surmised, “the powers look at one another” with a watchful eye, rather than a contemplative one.

I am perfectly aware that my conception of the connection between the theoretical proposal of a universalism of difference and the normative plan of a global Constitutionalism articulated in a plurality of “sovereign jurisdictions” is a true oxymoron in the eyes of any classical theory of sovereignty. It implies a serious challenge. Indeed, it prompts my search for a radical democratic system capable of constantly keeping open the tension between cooperation and conflict. In this respect I find pertinent and, as far as I am concerned, exceedingly instructive, Stefano Franchi’s reconsideration of Game Theory’s status quæstionis. In the latter, starting from its canonical versions in von Neumann and Morgenstern to its dynamic extension in John Nash’s non-cooperative games, Franchi recognizes a sort of “epitome” of my universalist position. Franchi’s rigorous reconstruction offers me the welcome chance to clarify themes I discussed in La passione del presente (2008) and in other essays that are also in dialogue with Jon Elster’s theses; namely, the issues of a “limited rationality”, of the critique of the “rational choice” paradigm, and of the distinction between the conditional program of rationality (“If you want x, then you must do y”) and the imperative program of normativity (“Do x, not y”). Keeping von Neumann’s minimax and John Rawls’ maximin principles in the background, I will capitalize on the latter’s neo-contractualist paradigm. First, I will critique the structure of A Theory of Justice; second, I will address the aporetic results that Rawls’ overlapping consensus (a concept he advanced in Political Liberalism to partially revise his original plan) entails.

First. Rawls’ initial elaboration notoriously stands on two pivotal indicators or guiding notions, the “original situation” and the “veil of ignorance”, which replace the presupposition of the “natural state” that is typical of modern contractualism. That veil, however, happens to be all too thin and, as a consequence, Rawls’ “original situation” depends on the premise of a double homogeneity: a) He counts on the homogeneity of a supposedly standard “rational behavior” not just at the egoistic, acquisitive, or utilitarian levels, but also at the ethical level (we should be mindful that behind Rawls’ great work of 1971 lies not only Hobbes, or the economic paradigm of “rational choice”, but, above all, Kant); b) He counts on the cultural homogeneity of the individual or collective subjects at the base of the contract. In other words, the “veil of ignorance” is either too thin or too thick to cover agents who either ignore events such as the American and French Revolutions, or who are unwilling to attribute a universal value and significance to the principles that those events manifested.

Second. Between the 1970s and the 1990s, Rawls matter-of-factly deflated and made more flexible his theoretical premises. He changed from a paradigm founded on rationality to one based on reasonableness. To that end, he proposed the concept of “overlapping consensus” as the only way out of a phase marked by the passage from the preeminence of the conflict of interest (or better, by the conflict of preferences or redistributive conflict) to a phase dominated by the conflict of values (or better, by the identitarian conflict among multifarious metaphysics or comprehensive Weltanschauungen).

In Political Liberalism, Rawls did not aim to play down the gravity of the new forms of conflict, and he did explicitly mention the period of religious wars between the 16th and 17th centuries. As cannot be stressed enough, however, the solution that this “second Rawls” offered displayed an Achilles heel even more vulnerable than the structural one in his Justice as Fairness. Its shortcoming is evident in that he postulated the possibility (which Habermas respectfully, but vehemently, denied) of making the procedurally demarcated space of political agreement into an impermeable space or, as my friend Roberto Esposito would say, a space “immune” from the metaphysical realm that environmental pressure makes manifest in the guise of basic conflicts between sweeping world-visions.

In his contribution, Peter Baker shows his firm grip on many of the issues I mentioned above. He sheds light on the close interrelation weaving together several aspects of my book: from the constitutive ambivalence of the boundary that I conceive in a territorial and symbolic-identitarian sense, to the economy-money-code and power-code-body nexuses, where my philosophical distance from the variegated koiné of biopolitics is predicated on the hypothesis of codification in both its technologic and symbolic valence; from the crisis of “isometry” to the irreducibility of political conflict and the cultural struggle for recognition. But I would like to proceed in order, and clarify my position on a few of the issues that Franchi and Baker’s articles directly or indirectly raise:

1. In the passage from a redistributive to an identitarian conflict, I hold the paradigm of measurement to be non-viable. In retrospect, the shift from Rawls1 to Rawls2 (granted the existence of the continuum between 1 and 2, in which he attempted to reach an agreement on the criteria of procedural justice) allows us to re-read A Theory of Justice as a sort of swan song for American welfare democracy. In the fifty years between the 1920s and the 1970s of the “long twentieth century,” as Giovanni Arrighi efficiently dubbed it, we witnessed a significant historical rupture in the bond tying together economy and politics, which we can express in theoretical terms as the collapse of the measurement paradigm. In the phase of “corporate pluralism”, as Charles Maier taught us, we could still postulate a metrics for conflicts of interests, and manage them through the government-company-union triangle that the great Leviathan of democratic welfare had brought about. With the emergence of new forms of conflict this institutional dispositif, by which we had governed the economy and social work, became obsolete because no metric exists either for conflicts of values (or of identity) or for redistributive conflicts. I attempted to argue as much already in the first Italian edition of The Passage West, a few years before Amartya Sen, in his essay “Identity and Violence”, broke the economists' reticence about the destabilizing nature and difficult governability of new forms of conflict.

2. I hold the universalism of difference to be the new criterion of politics. The crisis of the contractualist paradigm is but the tip of an iceberg at whose base lies the erosion of the presuppositions underlying the two main models of citizen-integration that we used to exploit throughout modernity. On one hand, we have (a) the assimilationist republican model, which postulates the public dimension of citizenry as a universal but neutral sphere, and which is thereby incapable of legitimizing differences in their singularity and specific historicity. On the other hand, we have (b) the multiculturalist, “mosaic-like” model, to use Seyla Benhabib’s felicitous expression, which reifies those differences by configuring the public sphere as a complex of adjacent ghettos and insular self-made structures. As I have argued in my works of the last few years, if we are to overcome those two models we should adopt a universalism of difference that is, on one side, at odds with the universalism of identity (which is neutralizing and supremacist) and, on the other, at odds with the anti-universalism of so-called “cultural differences” (which privileges context and relativism).

In my view, how each “difference” thinks or depicts the universal to itself is far more important than how different identities perceive and label themselves (as in multiculturalism), or how they view and interpret each other (as in inter-culturalism). Therefore, in proposing a universalism of difference I do not sign up for a static position like that of the many “third roads” that are disseminated throughout the European cemeteries of the 20th century. On the contrary, I start off with the demand that the new form of the universal emerge from the universalizing urges that are present, if only in nuce, in each historical-cultural identity. I am aware that we will have to decipher those drives not as “anthropological islands” but as conflictual universals that demand a political translation.

3. I hold rationality and passions, experience and narrativity to be the connective tissues of the Commonwealth. Procedural democracy remains irreplaceable, but is not the sole medium toward the creation of a public sphere that fits the project of a universalistic politics of difference. Habermas is right when, rejecting Rawls' discrimination between truth and justification, he points out that whereas we should not discuss our tastes we should indeed discuss our values. Of course, we cannot demonstrate different values, but at least we can argue about them in order to justify the behaviors of different, individual, or collective subjects. Yet I am convinced that the model of rational argumentation, too, is insufficient, since it exposes the public sphere to the risk of an implicit but inevitable discrimination between subjects endowed with and subjects lacking in “communicative competence” and argumentative ability. For this reason, I believe that a democracy capable of dealing with the challenges of the present should make room, besides procedural argumentative rationality, for the narrative dimension, thereby breaking with Plato’s prohibition and opening the City’s doors to “rhetoric” as the participative medium of narrating subjects. Let me clarify right away that I do not mean to take narrations or “narratives” for truths, but, on the contrary, I consider them sources of a knowledge we should experience by distinguishing between a “rhetoric with proof” and a “rhetoric without proof”, as Carlo Ginzburg noted. (On another occasion, it would be interesting to examine in depth the extent to which Ginzburg’s overture to rhetoric affects the terms of his well-known polemic with Hayden White). The pivotal role that the narrative dimension plays in the democratic public sphere it nurtures, however, means also that politics, as well as economy, must appreciate the implications stemming from the “limited rationality” paradigm. Two sets of reason require it: first, because we want to avoid stylizing subjects’ actions on the basis of a rational choice guided by our “preferences”; and second, because we want to remain alert to Herbert Simon’s paradox, namely, “How do we prefer our preferences?”

In other words, because our present is the result of the interlacing of various components that are natural and artificial, material and symbolic, technological and psychic, we cannot grasp our actions and life forms in either the strong rationality or reasonability frameworks. In spite of its totalizing appearance, our present is always a transitional, precarious, in-progress, and thus structurally unstable result. A manifestation of this fact is the extent to which we struggle in deciphering the logic and the structure of the present in order to bring it to the concept, as Hegel required.

Hayden White reminds us of such difficulty, as he reads The Passage West in light of my previous books on time and secularization. The issue of the present and its conceptualization is an eminently philosophical, not a historiographical, problem. At stake is not our ability to discern the dominant trends and movements indicating the future that will enable us to visualize our condition as “past”, but rather our capacity to discern a mismatch, an “untimely”, not past but future-oriented fold that any present brings along. We should not confuse this notion of the present with the concept of “current events”, and we should be mindful that to express the “untimely” quality of this present we have to have recourse not only to concepts but also to “figures”. These two constants are especially valid in the current phase of the “global age”, which is characterized by a shifting watershed, a sort of temporal in-between-ness that expressions such as “no longer” and “not yet” demarcate. White is right to point out that this phase appears to me to be “a stage on the way to a more comprehensive process of universalisation”.

Yet this process is neither linear nor guaranteed by a “master narrative”. In the “difference between a philosophy of history and a philosophical consideration of what professional historians would call “the historical record’” lies also the sole point that my perspective shares with Lyotard’s philosophical postmodernity. But the narrative of the global that we have been witnessing since the fall of the Berlin Wall, though arranged in different storylines and opposing evaluations, may just be a return to yet another master narrative in the wake of the so-called “end of ideologies”. The set of categories I have deployed to get to the thematic epicenters of the glocalized world were meant to tease out a condition of “passage” whose nature interpreters have often misunderstood. White, on the contrary, captures it with exceptional lucidity and precision: “This ‘passage’ is not to be understood as the world-wide adoption of Western institutions, values, and aims or goals, but rather the entrance into the post-national condition into which the Occident has already passed as a result of its historical experience of exploration, colonization, imperialization, and capitalization both of itself and of the rest of the world. In other words, in our era, the West has entered a phase in which, because of globalization, it is so permeated by elements of other cultures, that it has lost most of those aspects of itself that have historically defined it”.

Judging from these words, my look beyond the horizon of “epistemological nationalism” should also distantiate me from a “utopian” stance (it does not matter if it is a non-apocalyptic or non-messianic one) more than White appears to think. He acknowledges that my philosophical inclination to abandon mere oppositions in favor of antithetical, mutually self-implicating poles leads me away from “traditional philosophy” as well as from “its postmodernist avatar”. Moreover, he sees me going in a direction that mingles the “praxis armed against abstract conceptualization” of Vico and the pragmatists with “a kind of Spinozist monism” in which difference, and modal relations among differences, play a pivotal role. I recognize myself in all these references, with the significant addition, as far as my conception of politics is concerned, of Machiavelli’s kairós and, for my conception of space-time, Leibniz’s ideas of topology and contingence. As White grasps with surgical precision, once projected onto the political dimension this line of thought leads us to realize that in our identitarian obsession (whether individualistic or collective, it does not matter) we honor the same myth of “sameness”. Furthermore it brings us to invert the ideologically dominant pairing “political disenchantment/identitarian myth” with the hendiadys “re-enchant politics/de-mythologize identity”.

Insofar as identity and the constitution of the Self are at issue, I shall now proceed from the remarks of a master of the “historical imagination” such as White, to those of the master of the “dialectical imagination”; Martin Jay. In his contribution Jay focuses on the metaphorical expression “theatrical cavity”, which I use as a metaphor indicating an individual subject that is in reality a “multiple Self”. In the container of a cavea, we can hear the echoes of the different experiences, encounters, and diverse traditions that shaped and constituted that particular “subject”. [2] I employ this expression, although I am aware of its ambivalent status suspended between subjectivation and subjectification, and I am mindful of the turn that the Cartesian baroque scene epitomized when it raised the subjectum-hypokeímenon from the substratum of the foundational undergrounds to the sphere of the Cogito. In similar fashion, in my book I use the term “individual” while knowing that the latter is irreducible to the “possessive individualism” thesis, and in full awareness of the plurality and variety of the Self’s expressions that characterize the modern epoch. In that respect, Jay is right in mentioning Jerrold Seigel’s book The Idea of the Self: Thought and Experience in Western Europe Since the Seventeenth Century. A formidable and important work, it too is built according to precise criteria of selectivity, from the periodization he adopted (the 17th century to today) to the choice of modern cultural areas he privileged (the British, French, and German regions). (I wonder, though, how a history of the idea of the Self could ever leave out the Italian contributions; from Ficino and Pico in the Renaissance to Machiavelli and Giordano Bruno; or, in keeping with the temporal arc chosen by Seigel, from Vico to Gramsci). But let me return to the metaphor of the theatrical cavea. The metaphor of the mind and of consciousness’s theater comes straight from Hume, for whom we are all but bundles or agglomerates of different perceptions streaming in constant flow at an unconceivable pace. Our mind is a sort of theater, we read in the Treatise of Human Nature, a scene in which images and representations mix in an infinite variety of situations in which neither simplicity in a given time nor identity in a different one ever exist.

Martin Jay fears, if I understand his concern correctly, that such a vision would bring about the risk of foreclosing and renouncing communicative rationality and critical thinking. Personally I think that neither the metaphor of the theatrical cavity points to a closure, nor is the anti-essentialist idea of a “multiple Self” an obstacle to the constitution of a critical subjectivity. On the contrary, I am convinced that the true obstacle is a substantialist conception of personal identity.

In conclusion, since I find Jay’s contribution engaging and rich in important insights, I will limit myself to a few brief observations:

The perspective of my book is not a strictly historical one. Its purpose is, rather, to provide a set of concepts that would allow us to circumnavigate the "post-national constellation" (Habermas) or the "post-Hobbesian Order" (or disorder) that typifies the current phase (and the current form) of globalization.

I agree with Jay that we need to scrutinize and historically specify some actual models, which is what I have tried to do in my previous books devoted to secularization (Potere e secolarizzazione, 1983; Cielo e terra. Genealogia della secolarizzazione, 1994) and to the question of time (Minima temporalia, 1990). Unfortunately, these books are not yet translated into English. With the metaphor of the “theatrical cavity” I meant to emphasize the constitutively contingent, plural, and conflictual nature of our identity. I in no way aimed at denying our freedom and responsibility as individuals. On the contrary, I am convinced that we are unique and irreplaceable persons who shape our own irreducible singularities. In this sense, the biography of each one of us weaves the different “voices” of the theatrum we are.

My critique of communicative reason does not prevent me from recognizing that Habermas’ position is one step ahead of Rawls’ Neo-contractualism. I just think we should take one more step beyond Habermas and interlace argumentative rationality with narrative rationality (which is, by the way, a topic very close to Jay). I am also wary of normative theories unable to analyze the dynamics of the real, having spent, as Jay knows, very philosophically formative years in Florence and then in Frankfurt. Even before I learned from Marx I learned early on from Machiavelli, that we need to interweave the practice of dialogue with the vital moment of conflict.

In short, unlike philosophical postmodernism my position is a universalist one, albeit a universalism that I temper through the crucible of the “thought of difference”. To conclude, I am not enlightened, but rather against anti-Enlightenment. As dialectical thinking taught us, two negations do not cancel each other out, but radically transform identity through the terms they negate.

Last but not least, I am in debt to Andy Lantz for his extraordinary “assist” that brought Sofia Coppola’s 2003 film Lost in Translation to my attention. As he rightly notes, one of the implications of the notion of “passage” is precisely the question of translation, the genuine hallmark of the cosmopolitanism of difference that I propose. By translating we not only gain but always lose something because an untranslatable “x-factor” is always bound to remain, whether in the shape of silence or misunderstanding. Yet the more translations are destined to remain inexorably incomplete, the more they become necessary. Translating is the only way we can go beyond the modality of “recognition”. We cannot use recognition as the tool to forge a political space capable of hosting the interaction between different visions of the universal and our being-in-common. The reason is simple but crucial: recognition is the source of our problems, not their solution. We can “recognize” one another at the upmost degree when we are adversaries or mortal enemies, but not in a simple comparison or in a dialogic-analogic juxtaposition.

Therefore, as I often argued in accordance with Gayatri Spivak, we should operate a passage from the paradigm of comparison to the politics of translation. This step requires that we envision a deliberative democracy on a global scale capable of overcoming the still state-centric view of the contractualist theories of distributive justice. We should reconstruct what is universal, not only as the need to translate the universalizing impulses that are present in different cultures, but to rebuild it in the transnational issues that the new movements of active citizenry put forth: from the old and new inequalities to the common goods; from the quality of spaces to the environmental emergences; from the “de-democratization” processes that Wendy Brown and Étienne Balibar have studied to the invention of new forms of participation-decision. We should do all of this while remaining fully aware that translating always implies a remainder, something that is inevitably lost in translation.

The only way we can deal with differences is by translating them one into the other. Since the act of translating already presupposes the intrinsically multiple character not only of religious and cultural identities but also of the individual Self, translating is the only way in which, on one hand, we can “redeem” the rational fool that Robert Musil called the “ratioid” from his presumption of self-sufficiency, and, on the other, recover the fundamentalist fool from his identitarian obsession and pretense to truth. We know that Kant’s universal community of humankind will be nothing but irreducibly plural. Each one of its syntheses will be destined to remain, as the mathematicians say, an unsaturated formula, or a totality that will remain inevitably, and luckily, unachieved.

I will conclude by expressing my deepest gratitude to all the authors for the attention they have dedicated to my book, and for their generosity in commenting, discussing, and critiquing it. Many are the unresolved issues, and many the questions that I wish I could have addressed. But as a great artist-philosopher of my generation wrote, the answer is blowing in the wind.

This article concludes our series on Giacomo Marramao's The Passage West: Philosophy After the Age of the Nation State that originally appeared in a recent issue of Política común. The first part of his response can be read here Martin Jay's response to The Passage West can be read here. And Hayden West responds here. 



  • Passion and passive stem from the Lat. noun passio and adj. passivus, which are both related to the verb patior, eris, passus sum, pati, “to suffer, to feel”.
  • • In Latin cavea means cavity, cage, and also the hemicycle-shaped bleachers where the spectators sat in Roman theaters.

Works Referenced

  • • Negri, Antonio. Guide. Cinque lezioni su Impero e dintorni. Milano, Raffaello Cortina, 2003. Print.
  • • Marramao, Giacomo. Marxismo e revisionismo in Italia. Bari, De Donato, 1971. Print.
  • ———. Austromarxismo. Milano, La Pietra, 1977. Print.
  • • ———. Il Politico e le trasformazioni. Bari, De Donato, 1979. Print.
  • • ———. Potere e secolarizzazione. Roma, Editori Riuniti, 1983. Print.
  • • ———. L’Ordine disincantato. Roma, Editori Riuniti, 1985. Print.
  • • ———. Minima temporalia. Tempo, spazio, esperienza. Milano, Il Saggiatore, 1990. Print.
  • • ———. Kairós. Apologia del tempo debito. Roma-Bari, Laterza, 1992. Print.
  • • ———. Cielo e terra. Genealogia della secolarizzazione. Roma-Bari, Laterza, 1994. Print.
  • • ———. Dopo il Leviatano: individuo e comunità nella filosofia politica. Torino, Giappichelli, 1995. Print.
  • • ———. Passaggio a Occidente. Filosofia e globalizzazione. Torino, Bollati Boringhieri, 2003. Print.
  • • ———. Kairós: Towards an Ontology of ‘Due Time’. Aurora, Davies Group Publishers, 2007. Print.
  • • ———. La passione del presente. Breve lessico della modernità-mondo. Torino, Bollati Boringhieri, 2008. Print.
  • • ———. Contro il potere. Filosofia e scrittura. Milano, Bompiani, 2011. Print.
  • ———.The Passage West. Philosophy After the Age of the Nation State. Translated by Mateo Mandarini. Afterword by Antonio Negri. New York, Verso, 2012.

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