Universität KonstanzExzellenzcluster: Kulturelle Grundlagen von Integration

Hegemonial Semantics and Radical Counter-narratives

Outline for a Fellowship-Project at the Institute for Advanced Study in Konstanz, 2008/2009

For the 2008/2009 academic year, the Institute for Advanced Study in Konstanz is offering a fellowship opportunity to a group of researchers wishing to explore the question of the disintegration of hegemonial semantic norms and structures.

The group of fellows will consist of scholars and publicists interested in working together for a period of six to twelve months to prepare a full-length publication concerned with this question. Leaves of absence for both University of Konstanz scholars and external cooperating partners with specific projects of their own remain unaffected by this thematic focus.

Our starting point is the observation that the cultural hegemony of the “West” (initially Europe, later the USA), which inaugurated or accompanied a first phase of globalization, has apparently begun to lose its integrative power. This weakening has opened a space for local and regional counter-movements whose self-awareness centers on their own traditional resources and cultural values. They confront Western universalism in its various expressions (from the Enlightenment to technological progress and onward to pop culture) with either—defensively—an ethos of the autochthonous and particular or—offensively—another, competing form of universalism.

Special attention will be paid to the challenge posed to hegemonial norms in the realm of politics and law. Following the twentieth century’s catastrophes and the end of the Cold War, the normative system of inalienable human rights and individual and collective freedom  is at the apogee of its influence. Nevertheless, it finds itself increasingly faced with radicalized and violence-oriented counter-narratives, carried forward by a politicized religiosity expressed most prominently in the figure of Islamic Jihadism.

From a comparative perspective, the following question thus emerges: under what circumstances are counter-narratives radical and militant, and under what circumstances are they not so? An analysis of ongoing processes of radicalization and the production of violence-legitimating narratives would need to be deepened through a long-term historical comparison. This would focus not only on religion as a mobilizing force, as expressed for example in the challenge posed to the Roman Empire by Jews and Christians or the sixteenth and seventeenth century  monarchomachic tractates, but also on conflicts—capable of similar radicalization—between various social group. In the confrontation with bourgeois society’s  cultural and economic hegemony, the idea of violent liberation struggle that mobilized the proletariat emerged from a social utopia. And the justification for anti-colonial liberation movements—from the American Revolution to the twentieth century’s liberation struggles—likewise emerged consistently from an articulated confrontation with the experience of hegemony.

In this framework, we will need to inquire into patterns of reaction to semantic and normative hegemonial modes, the preferred stages for such counter-models, forms of exchange and (possibly hostile) symbiosis—and into both the dynamic involved in the formation of hegemonies and the strategies at work in their stabilization.