Benhabib, Seyla — The Claims of Culture: Equality and Diversity in the Global Era

Benhabib, Seyla (2002), The Claims of Culture: Equality and Diversity in the Global Era, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.


Global integration is progressing parallel to social disintegration (separatisms, international terrorism, national revival). “Yet wether [sic] we call the current movements “struggles for recognition” (Charles Taylor, Nancy Fraser, and Axel Honneth), “identity/difference movements,” [sic] (Iris Young, William Connolly), or “movements for cultural rights and multicultural citizenship” (Will Kymlicka), they signal a new political imaginary that propels cultural identity issues in the broadest sense to the forefront of political discourse” (Benhabib, 2002: viii).

Object of the book: “In this book I address the challenges posed to the theory and practice of liberal democracies by the coexistence of these various movements in the same temporal and political space – the “strange multiplicity” or our times, as James Tully has called it (1995)” (Benhabib, 2002: viii).

Argument: the responses to these challenges by contemporary political theory have been prematurely normative, taking identity as a given and not as a practice. Identity should be understood with methodological constructivism.

Benhabib proposes “a deliberative democratic model that permits maximum cultural contestation within the public sphere, in and through the institutions and associations of civil society” (Benhabib, 2002: ix). She defends a constitutional and legal universalism at the level of the polity, and defends legal pluralism and institutional power-sharing through regional and local parliaments.

She distinguishes between democratic theorist and multiculturalist theorist, preferring the former to the latter because multiculturalist theorists tend to maintain the purity and distinctiveness of cultures, which is irreconcilable with democratic and epistemological considerations. Cultures are complex human practices of signification and representation. “Most democratic theorists welcome and support struggles for recognition and identity/difference movements to the degree which they are movements for democratic inclusion, greater social and political justice, and cultural fluidity” (Benhabib, 2002: ix).

“Against attempts by other theorists to sacrifice either cultural politics or normative universalism, I argue that a modernist view of cultures as contested creations of meaning and a universalist view of deliberative democracy complement one another” (Benhabib, 2002: x-xi).

Chapter 1: On the Use and Abuse of Culture

Culture and its permutations:

“The emergence of culture as an arena of intense political controversy is one of the most puzzling aspects of our current condition” (Benhabib, 2002: 1).

Culture has become synonymous with identity. Identity politics draw the state into culture wars.

But culture derives from the Latin root colare, associated with activities of preservation, of tending to and caring for. Romans viewed agriculture as the “cultural” activity par excellence. Western modernity, capitalist commodity economy, rationalized scientific worldview, and bureaucratic administrative control have altered the root meaning. (2).

Romantic period distinguished culture/civilisation (Herder):

Civilisation = material values and practices that are shared with other peoples and do not reflect individuality.

Culture = forms of expression through which the “spirit” of one people, as distinct from others, is voiced.

Totalitarian period created debates on mass culture = superficiality, homogeneity, reproducibility, lack of durability, lack of originality. Does not educate or shape to soul, does not express the spirit of people.

The anthropological egalitarian view of culture denouncing Eurocentric cultural presumptions.

Much contemporary cultural politics today is a mixture of anthropological view of the democratic equality of culture and the Romantic Herderian emphasis on each form’s irreducible uniqueness.

Faulty epistemology of culture, whether conservative or progressive = “reductionist sociology of culture” (Benhabib, 2002: 4):

1) Cultures are clearly delineable wholes

2) Cultures are congruent with population groups and that a noncontroversial description of the culture of a group is possible

3) Even if cultures and groups do not stand in one-to-one correspondence, this is no problem for politics and policy.

Social constructivism and its normative implications

“… I defend social constructivism as a comprehensive explanation of cultural differences and against attempts in normative political theory that reify cultural groups and their struggles for recognition” (Benhabib, 2002: 5). Some multiculturalisms reject cultural essentialism, but not always for the same reasons and not clear epistemology. Benhabib: Narrative view of actions and culture à Observer/participants distinction: observer imposes unity and coherence on cultures as observed entities; participants experience through shared, albeit contested and contestable, narratives + Bhabha distinguishes pedagogical/performative aspects of national narrative, and the two have to fit (Benhabib, 2002: 9). The student of human affairs tries to explain that.

Discourse ethics and multiculturalism

Norms of universal respect and egalitarian reciprocity = guiding lines of human interaction. They must be presupposed in some form for practical discourses (11). “Discourses are procedures of recursive validation [italic in text] through which abstract norms and principles are concretized and legitimized” (Benhabib, 2002: 12). “Practical discourses, in the broadest sense, include moral discourses about universal norms of justice, ethical discourses about forms of the good life, and political-pragmatic discourses about the feasible” (Benhabib, 2002: 12). These are dialogic processes.

Bhabha distinguishes universalist/substitutionalist universalisms (13-14):

Substitutionalist universalism = Kant & Rawls à subject matter of practical discourse is restricted to those principles of a just society, to which rational agents, placed behind the epistemic strictures of a “veil of ignorance”, would agree. Provides a more determinate and concrete content of choice and deliberation. It views individuals as generalized, not as concrete others.

Interactive universalism = all moral beings are potential moral conversation partners, not just rational beings. I can become aware of the otherness of others.

Narrativity and the self

We are born in a web of narratives, or thrown into these. To be and to become a self is to insert oneself into webs of interlocution.

“My approach to the politics of multiculturalism is defined by these theoretical commitments: the discourse theory of ethics; the dialogic and narrative constitution of the self; and the view of discourses as deliberative practices that center not only on norms of action and interaction, but also on negotiating situationally shared understandings across multicultural divides” (Benhabib, 2002: 16).

A dynamic model of identity groups

Contemporary discussion of these issues is often mired in two shortcomings: processes of group formation are not treated dynamically and effort is spent on identifying what a group is; this literature ignores processes through which existing social and cultural cleavages are transformed into political mobilization (17).

The democratic theorist is concerned with the public manifestation of cultural identities in civic spaces; the multiculturalist is interested in classifying and naming groups and then developing normative theories.

Universalist deliberative democracy model (19-20):

1. “egalitarian reciprocity. Members of cultural, religious, linguistic and other minorities must not, in virtue of their membership status, be entitled to lesser degrees of civil, political, economic, and cultural rights than the majority.

2. voluntary self-ascription. In consociationalist or federative multicultural societies, an individual must not be automatically assigned to a cultural, religious, or linguistic group by virtue of his or her birth. An individual’s group membership must permit the most extensive forms of self-ascription and self-identification possible. There will be many cases when such self-identifications may be contested, but the state should not simply grant the right to define and control membership to the group at the expense of the individual; it is desirable that at some point in their adult lives individuals be asked whether they accept their continuing membership in their communities of origin.

3. freedom of exit and association. The freedom of the individual to exit the ascriptive group must be unrestricted, although exit may be accompanied by the loss of certain kinds of formal and informal privileges. However, the wish of individuals to remain group members, even while outmarrying, must not be rejected; accommodations must be found for intergroup marriages and the children of such marriages.”

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About Frank Ejby Poulsen

Education: MRes History, European University Institute, Florence, Italy. MSc Political Science, University of Copenhagen, Denmark. LLM International law and EU law, University of Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne, France. Academia Profile: http://eui.academia.edu/FrankEjbyPoulsen Languages: French: Mother tongue Danish: C2 English: C2 German: B1-B2 Spanish: A2-B1 Norwegian and Swedish: reading comprehension
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One Response to Benhabib, Seyla — The Claims of Culture: Equality and Diversity in the Global Era

  1. nikos says:

    πολυ καλο αρθρο

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