The present day sees the widespread dissolution of existing knowledge and classification systems. This plunges us into a limbo between the death of the old and the emergence of the new: a “time of monsters”—to update Antonio Gramsci’s much-quoted entry in the prison notebooks from the early 1930s—which is an appropriate culmination, perhaps, for the violent, astonishing, transformative, and troubled “100 years” that have led to the contemporary moment.
This period has been dominated by one political idea: the nation-state and its global structure, which were established as the universal mode of human political organization after the First World War. Thenceforth, claims by colonized peoples for political autonomy were all understood to be demands for “national self-determination” along the lines of the Western model. Not only this, but a coherent system of sovereign states was imagined on a global scale, in which all states would be equivalent legal entities whose affairs would be regulated by a rational international framework. For the most part, however, the idealism of this structure failed to materialize. Though old concepts of classification and organization were being overturned, the new system inherited a legacy of imperial relations and racist inequalities, which from the very beginning foreclosed any possibility of an ideal global society of equal states. Much of the uncertainty of this current era derives from the assertive re-emergence of forces suppressed and oppressed by these inequalities built into the structure of global political arrangements.
The nation-state has become so fundamental to today's thinking that other possibilities of political organization have become unimaginable—though at the beginning of the 20th century many other options were imagined and discussed around the world. While the idea of the nation nurtured local desires for independence and self-determination, it was far less amenable to idealism of a more cosmopolitan or universal kind, which other, now marginalized, models, had sought to promote: from the international peace movement to ideas of a federal world state, from transnational anti-colonial movements to communist internationalism. Today those alternative futures seem out of reach as well as the very idea that political innovation at the macro scale may be permitted. But confronting the blind spots, grey zones, and failures of the nation-state system, it is clearly crucial to once again imagine a zone of radical political innovation on a global basis.
The insufficiency of the nation-state system in its present condition can be seen most explicitly when considering migration. The fact that so many people are forced to leave their homes in the Middle East and Africa derives from failures inherent to the system, as does its inability to adequately process the ethical, political, and material consequences of the migrants’ movement. While the state differentiates between citizens and non-citizens, migration understood as a political and social movement challenges common ideas of citizenship and introduces strategies to claim at the very least “the right to have rights” (Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism).
Whilst the outcome of these movements in the face of growing nationalism and racism is unclear, there is another strand which can only become more pronounced in the years to come: many ongoing mutations of the nation-state system have to do with the increasing absorption of the contemporary state into technological and global financial circuits. This has led, most conspicuously, to the erosion of many essential aspects of state authority, some of which are out-sourced to private or supranational organizations. But it has also intensified other state functions, especially in the areas of security and social control. Taken together, all these new developments have already changed prevalent notions about what the state is and what purpose it serves. Since, at this late stage in the “100 years of now,” the West no longer monopolizes the formation of these notions, this transformation is also informed by powerful new conceptions of the nation-state that have arisen outside the Western world, conceptions which often have little or no allegiance to those tenets—liberalism, democracy, etc.—once thought to be the inevitable future of the entire world.
Now is the Time of Monsters pursues a twofold movement. On the one hand, structural installments of violence shall be explored and mapped. On the other hand, we aim to trace the foundations of the contemporary condition in history; their violence, their exclusions, and their displacement. To excavate and propose alternative narratives of the past, the present and the future will be central to this endeavor. Narratives allow us to bring into the present what has been excluded, what has been discarded: “The real must be fictionalized in order to be thought” (Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics).
Time plays an essential role in this. In order to reclaim futurity, we turn the here-and-now (Walter Benjamin’s Jetztzeit) into the question itself. Gramsci located the crisis—the time of morbid symptoms—in the fact that the old is dying and the new has not been born yet. Today’s crisis—the time of monsters—resides within temporal and structural glitches, too. Thus, we hope to create a space where we may make the present condition legible again by disassembling old frames and structures—opening up the space for thought beyond the nation-state system.
Rana Dasgupta, Nanna Heidenreich, Katrin Klingan