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  • As Radical as Reality Itself
  • Helen Grace
Review of:
Susan Buck-Morss, Dreamworld and Catastrophe: The Passing of Mass Utopia in East and West. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000.

Such imaginings, freed from the constraints of bounded spaces and from the dictates of unilinear time, might dream of becoming, in Lenin’s words, “as radical as reality itself.”

—Susan Buck-Morss, Dreamworld and Catastrophe

“Don’t you know philosophy is dead?... Marxism-Leninism killed it here, Deconstruction in the West. Here we had too much theory of reality, there you had not enough.”

—Malcolm Bradbury, Doctor Criminale

In Malcolm Bradbury’s 1992 novel, Doctor Criminale, the English narrator Francis Jay, a somewhat jaded journalist researching a mysterious Central European intellectual named Bazlo Criminale, arrives at an international literary conference in the Italian Lakes District. The conference participants (the usual suspects: “American Postmodernists, American feminists,... distinguished elderly French academicians,... muscular young academics from Southern California, carrying tennis rackets,... mean-looking dark-clad theoretical critics from Yale, formerly dissident writers from Eastern Europe uncertain about what exactly they are now dissenting from, African writers in multi-coloured tribal robes, German writers from East and West all wearing black leather jackets”) all have come to grapple with the conference theme, “Literature and Power:... Writing After the Cold War.” Bradbury’s portrait of literary conferences is wry and immediately recognizable—as are a number of the intellectuals. Criminale (“the Lukacs of the nineties” who had had a bitter quarrel with Heidegger, attacked Adorno, and revised Marx) turns out to be not entirely criminal, but neither does he prove to be innocent (“as Nietzsche said, when an epoch dies, betrayal is everywhere. To make ourselves heroes of the new, we must murder the past” [330]). He is a creation of the Cold War itself and if the novel is too close for comfort for Western critical intellectuals, it has resonance in Eastern Europe. Recently translated into Russian, it was essential summer reading in Moscow last year.

The novel’s fictional conference takes place in November 1990—but in October 1990, a real conference sharing a number of the characteristics of Bradbury’s account occurred in Dubrovnik—in a venue not so very far from the fictional one. Attended by an impressive assembly of what might be called a new postmodern nomenklatura (including Susan Buck-Morss, Boris Groys, Wolfgang Fritz Haug, Fredric Jameson, Helena Kozakiewicz, Merab Mamardashvili, Valerii Podoroga, Mikhail Ryklin, Vladislav Todorov and Slavoj Zizek), this was to be a renewal of a critical tradition of scholarly exchange established thirty years earlier by Herbert Marcuse and continued by Jürgen Habermas. Within six months of the conference, Dubrovnik was in ruins and in just over a year, the Soviet Union no longer existed. The Dubrovnik meeting—and the intellectual exchanges which continue in its wake—remain, however, a serious and unresolved challenge to Western theories of postmodernity and globalization, and this challenge cannot be ignored if these two terms are to be regarded as truly critical concepts and not just another dimension of liberal-democratic hegemony, masking the same old First-World expansionism.

In Dreamworld and Catastrophe, Susan Buck-Morss’s brilliant account of the end of the Cold War—part intellectual biography, part polemic, part philosophical picture-book, part “hypertext”—“fact” once again turns out to be far more fascinating than “fiction.” Buck-Morss’s method clearly draws upon Benjamin’s Passagen-Werk, cross-weaving description and quotation with astute observation and rich images to produce a new textual entity that exceeds the limits of the book, promising a future form better suited to the way in which ideas seize the imagination than the academic book is able to provide. As the author herself says, “Books are slow organizers, producing mass predispositions but seldom inciting direct action” (134). This presents a challenge to academic publishers which none—including MIT Press—yet seem able to grasp. What remains is a virtual film script or an unrealized multi-media project, demanding to escape from the limits of the printed word.

The book’s first chapter on power, sovereignty, and the nation-state draws upon an idea of the political imaginary as something considerably less abstract than...

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