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  • Futures of Modernity: Challenges for Cosmopolitical Thought and Practice ed. by Michael Heinlein etal.
  • Nil Disco (bio)
Futures of Modernity: Challenges for Cosmopolitical Thought and Practice. Edited by Michael Heinlein et al. Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag, 2012. Pp. 234. $45.

With the passing of sociologist Ulrich Beck in January 2015, we lost one of our most prolific and versatile scholars of the dynamics of modernity. Beck was catapulted to instant notoriety with the appearance in 1986 of his Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. In this book he developed the idea that modernity was being superseded by a new social formation based on efforts to define and manage the unintended consequences of modernization itself. This idea of “reflexive modernization,” aka the “modernization of modernity,” soon engaged social theorists of the caliber of Anthony Giddens and Scott Lash in an extended collaboration. “Risk” was in the air. Two years prior to Beck’s 1986 debut, Yale sociologist Charles Perrow published his highly influential Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk [End Page 973] Technologies. Though the argument seems strikingly similar, there are clear differences in the way each conceives the etiology of risk and how they connect it to grander themes like modernity. For Perrow, risks were primarily a product of organizational and technological complexity and he provided hair-raising, fine-grained accounts to prove the point. Beck argued that risks were the product of inevitable unintended consequences: the modernistic project itself produced unintended risks that manifested themselves as a kind of second-order modernistic challenge and so transformed the very nature of modernity itself. As a grand social theorist in the tradition of Max Weber and Karl Marx, Beck went on to explore the ramifications of this “second modernity” across a wide range of domains, from climate change and equality to the dynamics of intimate relationships and migration. In his final years he developed a discourse of “cosmopolitization,” arguing that many risks had gone global—or at least transnational—and that the nation-state was rapidly becoming an obsolete scale of governance for tackling the new scale of risks. Instead, new “cosmopolitan” arrangements, based on bridging but not annihilating differences, would now have to shape the agenda of the “second modernity.”

The present volume is an edited version of a symposium held in honor of Ulrich Beck in July 2009 at the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, where Beck taught for many years. Participants included luminaries such as Zygmunt Bauman, Bruno Latour, Wolf Lepenies, Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim, and of course Ulrich Beck himself. It is hardly surprising that the members of this illustrious company, though clearly allowing themselves to be inspired by Beck’s work, also very much seized on the occasion to fry their own fish. The five(!) editors here did what they could to organize the texts into what—all things considered—turns out to be a surprisingly coherent book. Their brief introduction showcases the issues raised in the symposium and they provide additional footholds by grouping the texts into four thematic headings: Cosmopolitanizing European Modernity, World Risk Society—Climate Change in a Cosmopolitical View, Inequality and Governance in the Global Age, and Individualization Cosmopolitanized. These rubrics reflect the scope of Beck’s more recent concerns. All readers will find something to instruct and inspire them in the book, though it is unlikely they will find all the contributions equally entrancing.

Why should historians of technology want to read this book or, by extension, participate in this kind of grand sociopolitical discourse? For one thing, this symposium once again reveals the technological and historical deficit endemic in grand social theory. Technologies are clearly everywhere, but by and large banished to the basement and the wings and when they are opportunistically brought onstage, it is only as an ahistorical deus ex machina. As method and body of knowledge, history of technology can certainly help to overcome these conceptual and empirical deficits, but only if historians of technology take the initiative. For a start, [End Page 974] see another debate with Beck held at the Rachel Carson Center: For another thing, in the long run history of technology can save itself...


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