Hegel, Camus and the Clapham omnibus

Contemporary Political Theory
April 22, 2005

A crisis of overproduction afflicts the world of scholarly journals. The dizzying proliferation of new titles is lopsidedly supply driven: demand led by authors hungry for peer-reviewed outlets, not readers eager to expand their portfolio of subscriptions. One of the most striking consequences of this has been the compartmentalisation of knowledge into increasingly esoteric niches. While some new journals slice thematically across disciplinary boundaries, others plough ever narrower subfields.

Contemporary Political Theory seeks to buck the trend. Its intent is to "reflect and promote the diversity of political theory by encompassing a wide range of approaches, including analytical political philosophy, radical and post-structural political thought, feminist political theory, international relations theory and the philosophy of social science". In other words, this is a journal for theorists of the political who resist self-definition as scientists - for "Anglophone" and "continental" devotees who, unlike many of their North American counterparts, do not believe that numerical formulas best encapsulate the messy complexity of human interactions.

Nine issues provide scant evidence on which to judge whether the editors have realised their grand aspiration. We might conclude that the attempt to be all things to all algebra-averse political theorists and philosophers is too diffuse a remit. The editors seem tacitly to acknowledge this.

Strikingly few contributions deal with phenomena that cut across state borders. Feminist political theory fares little better than international relations. The majority of articles either probe classical questions of normative political theory (justice, entitlement, rights) or speak more pointedly to contemporary preoccupations: nationalism and multiculturalism; discourse and silence; restitution and forgiveness.

Each issue contains two or three articles of a general nature; a feature article under the heading "Theory and practice"; another titled "Political theory revisited"; and book reviews. In practice, this division into sub-categories appears rather arbitrary. It is unclear, for example, that an essay on "The becoming other of politics: A post-liberal archipelago" is more praxeologically oriented than an article exploring "The truth about false consciousness", which draws on a specific instance of South African revolutionary consciousness. That few authors make a commitment to practice suggests that the journal's core concern lies in more philosophical excursus. Many contributions revisit canonical political theorists: those long enshrined in the pantheon and those queuing for a place. The latter range from the voguish Frantz Fanon, Jacques Derrida and Hannah Arendt to the more marginal Max Stirner and Maurice Merleau-Ponty.

The journal occasionally risks drifting from its continental moorings to a rather parochial berth - one article is devoted to that peculiarly English vehicle, the "Clapham omnibus". The largely UK-based editorial board does nothing to dilute this impression, although the final issue of 2004 includes American scholars such as Nancy Fraser, Benjamin Barber and Jean Elshtain.

Contemporary Political Theory remains in that precarious kindergarten phase of new journals, not yet fully enrolled in the "big school" of established titles. But for those whose philosophic tastes relish more unusual combinations - from Camus as proto-postcolonial to Hegel and wet nursing - there is good reason to expect this journal to make the grade.

Susan Carruthers is associate professor of history, Rutgers University, New Jersey, US.

Contemporary Political Theory

Editor - Gary Browning, Raia Prokhovnik and Simon Tormey
Publisher - Palgrave
Price - Quarterly; Institutions £290.00; Individuals £48.00
ISSN - 1470 8914

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