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New Figures of the Master in Today’s World

The question of the Master stretches back to times immemorial, to the very origins of human culture. It kept haunting our history throughout millennia, presenting ever new facets and enigmas. Why and how would someone acquire the superior status of a leader, a person in charge and in command, with the inscrutable aura of a Master, wielding the imperious power over people? And why would others submit to and accept the exceptional authority of the Master, comply with his commands, and acquiesce in their compliance? 

The question is at the core of all political philosophy and more widely of a vast variety of reflections on the foundations of social domination, be it in the attempts to legitimize the power of some people over the others, be it in the attempts to put an end to it. Our conference, of course, does not aim at addressing the vastness of these intricate questions, all of them with a very long and venerable history, engaging instead with the problem of the present-day figures of the Master. We want to explore in what ways these figures present a novelty in relation to tradition, recent and old, and what can be done to invent strategies to counteract them.

The French revolution can serve as a shorthand for the inauguration of modernity and hence a handy watershed (albeit problematic) in conceiving the figure of the Master. On the one side of the divide, in pre-modern times, the position of the Master was based on a certain conception of sovereignty, on transcendence, on hereditary entitlement, on descent, on the supposedly natural hierarchies, on paternal authority – the authority of the father so often serving as the model of all authority. On the other side of the divide, with the triumphant ideas of the enlightenment, one has allegedly done away with all these grounds for domination, one has entered an era where authority should be based on capacities, knowledge, expertise, competence, efficiency, abilities, free competition, use of reason and the progress of science. In one word, modernity was supposed to bring about the death of the Master, with capital M. By the time we entered the 20th century, it became clear that this optimistic scenario was but a mirage. The century has seen carnages, worse than any in history, under the auspices of new kinds of Masters, whose authority may be reminiscent of the pre-modern type of authorities, but whose logic was essentially different. The master figures loomed large, with the twin calamities of fascism and Stalinism, and apart from that with a variety of other dictatorships. The figure of the Master was back, with a vengeance.

This brings us to the present times, the focus of our interests, the times after the alleged end of history, with the prospect of market economy and liberal democracy defining the horizon of global progress and prosperity. Why is it that we are facing the resurgence of new figures of masters? Why is it that the growth of populism in the last decade and more started to largely define our political horizon and our agendas? The particular figures may seem to owe their rise to the contingencies of particular constellations, but taken together they form a new pattern which causes grave concerns and calls for serious reflection.

The new types of masters (nomina sunt odiosa) do not quite fall into the same category, but there are some prominent features that one can discern. Far from being the awesome Master figures endowed with aura and charisma, they rather look like caricatures of master figures, fake masters often labelled as clowns and buffoons, subject to numerous but impotent parodies. They are often described as the figures of obscenity of power – power always had an obscene underside that it tried to keep hidden, but the new element is that the obscene underside now tends to freely come to the fore, without having any serious consequences. It even appears that a reverse logic is taking place, namely that the more the obscene comes to the fore, the more it enhances the new master figures. They are immune to being disclosed as liars and unfit for public office. The revelations which would have destroyed anyone a decade ago now function as a boost. The master turning out to be a fake does not undermine his own position, he even strengthens it. Moreover, the particular appeal of these figures also pertains to the fact that they constantly break all the unwritten rules, the thin and tenuous line between what was commonly accepted as decent or ruled out as indecent. But the unwritten rules, although elusive and hard to define, form the fabric of social life, and when the completely unacceptable starts to be gradually accepted and accommodated, then the very texture of our social bonds is put into jeopardy. The fact that they most often appear as figures of transgression, even obscenity, poses questions about the new avatars of sovereignty and political legitimacy.

The figure of the Master presents the main thread of the conference. Our focus is on the present predicament, but we fully acknowledge that one cannot engage with new figures of the master without considering tradition and history, without bringing in reflections on the nature of domination in its vast varieties and on its origins. We are interested in proposals coming from a variety of scholarship from different fields, philosophy, psychoanalysis, political theory, cultural studies etc. We welcome new interventions into classical texts, such as Hegel’s political philosophy and/or his analysis of master and slave in ThePhenomenology of Spirit, or Shakespeare’s representation of (monarchic) power. We are intrigued by contemporary phenomena like the obscenity of power and the theatricality of power, where it seems that the political domination depends on its public display, its representation in the media and its performance in front of the cameras, but in a very different sense that this could be said for the Monarch or for the totalitarian Leader. We encourage analyses of the contemporary shift in the structure of capitalism, sometimes labelled as ‘techno-feudalism,’ ‘platform capitalism,’ or simply ‘big data.’ And since the figure of the Master is so inextricably bound to the figure of the father – at least traditionally –, we are very interested in how sexuality and gender come to complicate the contemporary formations of the master.

Organized by

Aufhebung Association

Cankarjev dom

Goethe-Institut Ljubljana

University of Ljubljana, Faculty of Arts