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Thesis Eleven

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Budapest Central: Agnes Heller'S Theory of Modernity


Peter Beilharz Thesis Eleven 2003 75: 108 DOI: 10.1177/0725513603751008 The online version of this article can be found at: http://the.sagepub.com/content/75/1/108

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NOTES AND DISCUSSION

BUDAPEST CENTRAL: AGNES HELLERS THEORY OF MODERNITY


Peter Beilharz

Agnes Hellers work has long been caught up with the idea of History and history, histories, the big world pictures and also the small personal stories which run alongside and under their hypostatized versions in the politics of state or in popular culture and its mythologies. Modernity, or the modern, is the other big theme in Hellers work, this again with the matching emphasis on the experience of modernity and its core value of contingency. Together with this enthusiasm for the value of contingency, Heller insists on the necessity of pluralism. Having learned her Marxism from Lukcs, as Weberian-Marxism, Hellers theory has always had Marx as its guide, even as her personal project becomes detached from Marx after The Theory of Need in Marx (1976). The angel of history who persistently shadows her work into the more recent period, however, is that of Weber. Webers spirit is closer to that of our own times, and his perspectivism and methodological pluralism better reect postmodern sensibilities, a life after high modernism, after Fordism, after the big dreams and nightmares of totalitarianism. The best statement of this methodological pluralism in Hellers work in its sociological form came in 1983, with the publication of the programmatic Fehr-Heller statement Class, Democracy, Modernity, in Eastern Left, Western Left. Marxs temptation is to reduce modernity to capitalism, to sidestep civil society and to leave the state in the background, as epiphenomena. Fehr and Heller, in the 1983 text, begin rather with the Weberian-Marxism ambit, that modernity is the period and the region in
Thesis Eleven, Number 75, November 2003: 108113 SAGE Publications (London, Thousand Oaks, CA and New Delhi) Copyright 2003 SAGE Publications and Thesis Eleven Co-op Ltd [0725-5136(200311)75;108113;037129]

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which capitalism, industrialization and democracy appear simultaneously, reacting to, reinforcing, complementing and checking each other (Fehr and Heller, 1987: 201). This formulation was a theoretical anticipation of the projects now collectively assembled, twenty years later, under the categories which refer to alternative or multiple modernities. America is not the only modernity (or capitalism, or empire) on this thinking. The very same year (1983) Fehr and Heller together with Gyrgy Markus published their remarkable analysis of Soviet-type modernity in Dictatorship Over Needs. Over the following years, Zygmunt Bauman (1989) published Modernity and the Holocaust and Jeffrey Herf (1984) published Reactionary Modernism, and the species of German totalitarian modernity were on the map alongside the Soviet experience. In this period of their Australian sojourn, the Hungarians also came to know something of this, lazy or accidental modernity. Having begun in a small country, in Hungary, and travelled via another, in the antipodes, Fehr and Hellers next step was to America, to New York, to the centre of the web, to the aura left by Hannah Arendt at the New School. The books continued, personal instalments in a personal theory. Their reception was never spectacular; there was no choreographed spectacle, no A-list book launches of glitterati; there was always more work to do, commuting between New York and Budapest. A Theory of Modernity came in under the radar (Heller, 1999). Hellers reception in the centres has always been marginal. Fifteen years spent teaching in Manhattan has not shifted this perhaps because she changes her mind? Or perhaps because she happily goes her own way. She does not seek a school, or to establish a constituency. As Heller puts it in opening A Theory of Modernity, it is entirely possible that the self-same author will devise more than one theory of modernity in a lifetime. The pretexts exist, as in the 1983 essay Class, Modernity, Democracy, as do the post-texts, like The Three Logics of Modernity (Heller, 2001). As Heller observes, A Theory of Modernity can also be read as the closing frame of a trilogy, which began with A Theory of History (1982) and had A Philosophy of History in Fragments (1993) as its interval. The formal difference between the rst two volumes is striking, not least in voice. A Theory of History, ironically, is closer to traditional philosophy of history, while the Fragments book shifts away from the more authoritative tone of historiography towards the ctive which ends in An Ethics of Personality with imaginary letters between imaginary relatives (Heller, 1996). At a different level, the two earlier books could be incorporated conceptually, as universal and particular, the fragment. One point of consistency across Hellers theory, however, lies in its attention to the everyday. Hellers is not merely a sociology of modernity, or, if it is, it includes a sociology of modernity as everyday life. Modernity has its dynamics, at higher levels of abstraction, from rationalization to commodication and differentiation, but it is mediated by the level of experience. Hellers own encounter with modernity, or modernities has been

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extraordinary, and yet common from Budapest to Auschwitz, to the Hungarian version of communism, through to exile in Australia, hope in America, and the entirely unexpected return to Budapest after the fall of Communism. Through all this, the quality of insight in Hellers work depends on intuition, and experience counts as much as insight or intellect. Agnes Heller therefore sets out, not to survey other peoples theories of modernity, but to generate a personal theory that will nevertheless have some universalistic claims. Even the biggest theoretical claims, here, are personal, for the presence of Marx persists, as does the ghost of Weber via Lukcs, where it all began, in Budapest all those years ago. Marx recedes; Weber persists because of the breadth of his frame of reference, and because attitudinally he was the rst swallow of the postmodern, identied more conventionally into the 80s with the gure of Nietzsche, even more fashionably with Heidegger. In my recollection of the time we spent together in Melbourne over the years from 19781986, it was Ferenc Fehr who prompted the heightened sense of being-after. Here the postmodern was not a project, but a condition, or a sensibility. Or to use the language Heller uses in A Theory of Modernity, it is a matter of perspective. Heller presents this book as a theory of modernity from a postmodern perspective. Much of what passes for postmodern, in comparison, is actually closer to the perspective we call modernist, as in the mantra all that is solid. Postmodernity is not the stage that comes after modernity. It is modern. Modernism is also part of the postmodern, even though modernist modernity cannot regain its absolute self-condence. Modernist modernity was locomotive; its image of transience, such as it was, was the railway station. The residual traditionalism of this earlier modernism lay in its hesitance to embrace motion fully, and in its use of the future as a horizon or destination beyond rather than a present of Jetztzeit. Some of these future horizons were awful. The locomotive breath pushed its victims to Auschwitz and to the Gulag. Our postmoderns, in comparison, accept life on the railway station, this perhaps especially in Europe; in America, in comparison, the poor stick with Greyhound, the tourists in the airport terminals. Whatever the form of propulsion, today, the future is closer, ever unknown with Heller. We now live on Budapest Central. Yet the moral implication of living in this transience is not bad; it implies responsibility for the present, rather than the abstract, and always potentially dangerous commitment to the distant future of utopia or dystopia. This is an ethics of responsibility, or care, rather than of ultimate ends. Marx was the locomotive of classical theory, Trotsky his great historic inheritor. Weber was too melancholic for this, seeking respite rather in Ascona, while Hegel stays settled in the old Weimar. Marx lived up to his own expectations in at least one sense he was the most revolutionary of theorists, ultimately the advocate of both technology and redemption. Modernity, here dened as capitalism, is dynamic and future oriented. Marx cannot nally disentangle the goal of human autonomy from the drive to

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rational mastery. If Romanticism and Enlightenment are the two faces of modernity, then it is Marx who manages most powerfully to wear both of these masks. This is why Marx is so central for us, as Castoriadis showed, and why he remains so inseparably bound to the Promethean spirit, too close to the gods for us as mere mortals. Now we are a world after Marx. Modernity is autopoetic, and functional this much of Luhmann is retained by Heller. We move, we choose or are forced to move, to full or to fail in our destinies, not to follow the prescriptions of our birth. We retain this sense of romantic action even as we suffer under the weight of the forces we call structures. This is precisely what we call contingency, and it is central to Hellers thinking, which is at least as much a philosophy of experience as it is a sociology of action. We make ourselves; in this sense we choose ourselves, however successfully. The world moves, and we also move it. Yet this theory of action occurs within the theory of modernity and its logics or dynamics. Hellers is not a nave argument; but it refuses that kind of victim thinking which runs through from Rousseau, where we can only ever be creatures of our circumstances. Heller now suggests that there are three logics of modernity: the logic of technology, the logic of the functional allocation of social positions, and the logic of political power. Modernity is best seen not as a homogenized or totalized whole, but as a fragmented world of some open, but not unlimited, possibilities. These logics are plural, and pluralizing. Ours is neither the world of the iron cage, nor of hopeless globalization. These three logics of modernity can work together, or in tension; they need carriers, or agents. It is not technology, but mentality or imagination that enframes. Yet if the rst logic of modernity is typically indicated by the word technology, the second logic refers to markets, labour markets, and money, all the ingredients of Gesellschaft. This is the point at which romantics come out in a rash, for they compare not the old world and the new, but the new and an (old) ideal, that of Gemeinschaft. Merit and meritocracy may not work, but it is a better (more modern) guide than the value of mindless tradition here. Monetization frees people from personal dependency. Monetization may not be very dignied, but it does expand the realm of freedom. Hellers shadow thinker as sociologist here, then, is neither Marx nor Tnnies, but Simmel. Her philosophical doppelganger is Kierkegaard. Nor does this sensibility then mean that societies like ours can be equal, or satised, or dispense with alienation, neither the reality nor the concept. The rich do not sleep on Budapest Central. But we still have to hold modernity to its promise, of democracy and freedom. For, to repeat Hellers is not a nave sociology, even if its concern is to identify room to manoeuvre. Nor is it a sociology of action, waiting for the next social movement. Its optimism is more immediate and anthropological. The world moves, the big world moves, but so do the smaller worlds we inhabit. Contingency depends here, less on technological necessity than

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on historical imagination, positive or negative. Liberal democratic modernity offers more room to move than the alternative modernities of fascism or communism, because of the tension built into its rst two terms. The main value of liberation is freedom; for democracy, equality is the highest value. Power and democracy are in constant tension. The mood in which Hellers theory of modernity is offered is positive, and open. Its frame, the logics of modernity and its institutional relations, foreground the immediacy of personal lifeworlds, home, place, things. She closes A Theory of Modernity with an opening, for it is, in this way of thinking, easier to answer questions than to leave them open. The last lines read as follows: Postscript: perhaps I have answered too many questions more than I should have. If this is so, please re-translate my answers into so many new questions (Heller, 1999: 235). Hellers is a theory of modernity based on democratic personality. Which might return us, nally, to the question of the relative marginality of her work. Perhaps the problem with most mainstream critical theory is that it appeals because it combines the appearance of an immediately democratic or mimetic attraction (here, you can deconstruct yourself) with the romantic gloom characteristic of our time (nothing will change, it can only get worse, for the others at least). The challenge of Hellers work, in contrast, is after all closer to the spirit of Enlightenment and the real strength of its call, not only to think for yourself but to be, to act as yourself. This is a big ask. The call to autonomy is not easily heard in the Babel of noisier theorists. Tucked away in a footnote, Hellers Theory of Modernity also casts out a line to its own solitude:
It is not contingent which authors and works become famous, or prescribed reading, or themes for conferences, and quoted many times; many authors who are neither worse nor less interesting than those who have made it, and yet they remain entirely unknown, and rarely published. It becomes important, for example, where one happens to be born. A man or woman who is born in Paris has a thousand times greater opportunity to become prescribed reading than a person born in Australia. Whom one knows, who is quoting someone, and who meets whom (by accident) are also important factors of selection. (Heller, 1999: 283n.19)

Budapest Central has more than one centre, just as does the railway system of Melbourne or New York. Hellers message is like the song of the metro busker, the chance encounter with the troubadour that makes you see the world differently, even if just for a moment, as a new line of vision opens up. Everyday life has its own epiphanies. If youre in the wrong centre, youll risk missing it, or hearing its echoes at a distance. You can walk on; you might pause, read the book, imbibe the spirit of this most grateful commuter of modernities. There are crossroads in the underground, and not only in the labyrinth; there are exits and arrivals, even after Auschwitz. There is the present. There is the gift.

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Peter Beilharz is Director of the Thesis Eleven Centre for Critical Theory at Latrobe University. He is presently working on a four volume edition of American Postwar Critical Theory for Sage Publications, and with George Ritzer on the Sage Encyclopedia of Social Theory (2 volumes, 2004). [Email: P.Beilharz@latrobe.edu.au]

References
Bauman, Z. (1989) Modernity and the Holocaust. Oxford: Blackwell. Fehr, F. and Heller, A. (1987) Class, Democracy, Modernity, in F. Fehr and A. Heller Eastern Left, Western Left. Oxford: Polity. Fehr, F., Heller, A. and Markus, G. (1983) Dictatorship Over Needs. Oxford: Blackwell. Herf, J. (1984) Reactionary Modernism. New York: Cambridge University Press. Heller, A. (1976) The Theory of Need in Marx. London: Allison and Busby. Heller, A. (1982) A Theory of History. London: Routledge. Heller, A. (1993) A Philosophy of History in Fragments. Oxford: Blackwell. Heller, A. (1996) An Ethics of Personality. Oxford: Blackwell. Heller, A. (1999) A Theory of Modernity. Oxford: Blackwell. Heller, A. (2001) The Three Logics of Modernity and the Double Bind of the Modern Imagination. Budapest: Collegium Budapest.

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