Working session
Department of contemporary continental philosophy

08. 03. 2019; 10:00

Institute of Philosophy boardroom, 1st floor


Living the Future New:
FIgures, Synecdhoches and iconoclasts




The idea that political practice should seek to 'prefigure' a desired future by enacting elements of that future within the present is commonplace in many contemporary social movements. This, however, is understood in diverse and sometimes conflicting ways, and this paper will consider three approaches to conceptualising this relationship between present and future. The first draws on the etymology of 'figuration' as elaborated by Erich Auerbach. This sees it's origins in disputes among the church fathers over the precise relationship between Old and New Testament, in which a figurative relationship is distinguished from a merely allegorical one and seen as positing an intimate identity between real historical events. Uri Gordon has recently traced the influence of this approach in more recent social movements, but also criticised it for its historical determinacy and for acting as a consolation for activists. An alternative conceptualisation is offered by Benjamin Franks, who suggests that prefigurative practices should be understood as synecdoches, parts that stand in for a desired future whole. Yet this raises epistemic questions of how to recognise such parts as belonging to a wider whole, and a risk of fetishism, in which a part obscures or replaces a whole, instead of representing it. A final approach is offered by those who Russell Jacoby calls iconoclastic utopians, including figures such as Bloch and Benjamin, who are influenced by elements of the Jewish messianic tradition, and as see the present as anticipating a future that nonetheless cannot be fully named or represented. While there are affinities between these approaches, they also differ in important ways, with consequences for critical theory and practice.