Academic journal article Alternatives: Global, Local, Political

Theory and Society in the Shadow of Terror

Academic journal article Alternatives: Global, Local, Political

Theory and Society in the Shadow of Terror

Article excerpt

Contemporary social theory has reached an impasse that expresses the contradictions of our time. The retreat from Grand Theory may have been necessary but there is need now to go back to basic questions about ontology, epistemology, and ethics. This article presents an alternative approach to method--an approach that allows us to map the tensions between tribalism, traditionalism, modernism, and postmodernism in this age of globalization, multiplying crises, and increasing insecurities. KEYWORDS: theory, methodology, crisis, abstraction, inquiry.


Across the globe, we face a general and slow crisis. The generality of the crisis is peculiar because, apart from environmentalists talking about the slow degradation of the planet through processes such as global warming, generalized doomsaying has tended to retreat to the margins of social discourse. The crisis is marked, paradoxically, both by fast, localized episodes and by a "slow" generality that seems to elude social theoretical explanation. The dual metaphor of immediacy and slowness helps us, at least provisionally, to evoke the continuous momentum of transformation over the last century and, at the same time, to encapsulate the various and immediate moments of upheaval.

It is a crisis about which we now tend to talk in the plural: crises of meaning, crises of structural adjustment, and crises of international organization. It is as if the multifarious and particular crises are not part of an explicable and interconnected pattern of change, a pattern that is fundamentally disrupting prior forms of social life. At best, it seems that all we can do in describing that uneven pattern is to point to the speed of change or the globalization of effect.

The general processes that underlay the various crises are rarely named explicitly. When they are, theorists turn to reductive or unconvincing metaphors such as the rise of Empire, the clash of civilizations, or the battle between Jihad and McWorld. (1) The antiglobalization movement call it "globalization," but with far too much emphasis on peak institutions such as the World Trade Organization. More usually, the processes of crisis are evoked in terms of countless trouble spots around the world: the Israel-Palestine question; the Kosovo aftermath; the Congolese slow genocide. The acts of one day--the day of terrorism on September 11, 2001--could have changed this sense of multiple unconnected crises, but it didn't. It refocused the concern of the mainstream on one aspect of the globalizing response. Ignoring core questions about where the world is headed, politicians and pundits explained away terrorism as irrational hatred and attributed previously unconnected activities to the networked genius of a single, shadowy organization variously called "al-Qaida," "al-Qa'ida," and "al-Qaeda." When those then-unnamed terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the act was not taken as a sign of a world-in-crisis economically and militarily, politically and culturally. It was all too quickly brought under ostensible control by desperately seeking to name both the perpetrators and the international response. Hence, a "network of networks" with a small core network was named "al-Qaeda"; (2) and a series of half-thought-through military retaliations was projected as a purposive and sustainable response and called "the War on Terror." The one-day crisis was over, even if that "war" would continue for years.

At an analytic or theoretical level, the inability to understand the generality and cross-cutting connections of the crises has related manifestations. One issue can be elucidated through a discussion of the way that the concept of "crisis" no longer fits its age-old definition--at least not in the sense that the concept was taken to refer to a particular and definitive turning point. Except for that one act, now known in the United States by its convenience-store-like appellation Nine-Eleven, a crisis is no longer contained as a dangerous time when normality is suspended and the future requires an immediate response. …

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