Manfred B. Steger is interested in isms, especially neologisms. He means to map our changing ideological landscape; to identify our political belief systems. He wonders if today's isms mean something different from yesterday's isms. What is new about neoconservatism or neoliberalism? How does postcolonialism or postmarxism modify its root? Can feminism or environmentalism serve to reorder our thoughts - our world? How can we imagine or reimagine that world? In these terms? Or will it require more collisions of "neo" and "ism" for clarity to emerge?
This is a noble quest, and a difficult one. Perplexing as it may be, it is fatally compromised by a strange case of linguistic snow-blindness. For an author so deeply attached to forms of words and shades of meaning, The Rise of the Global Imaginary is written in a kind of pickled sociologese, by turns cloudy and cliched, replete with "(re)construction" and "decontestation", and shot through with morphologies ("the morphology of market globalism") and suchlike hip talk.
We are asked to swallow words that are not in the dictionary, starting with "the imaginary" as a noun rather than an adjective, although that is probably a lost cause after its use by the formidable Charles Taylor, among others. "Globality", on the other hand (a borrowing from elsewhere), could still be nipped in the imaginary bud. If the urge is for something a little outre, Milton offers the rather more poetic "globy".
It is not so much the words as the sentences that complicate matters. Here is the author explaining himself in the introduction: "Most importantly, this study links political ideologies to their overarching 'social imaginary'. Constituting the macromappings of social and political space through which we perceive, judge and act in the world, this deep-seated mode of understanding provides the most general parameters within which people imagine their communal existence ... Consider, for example, how the social imaginary provides the deep matrix for our meaningful participation in a public celebration of a national holiday ... ". And his conclusion:
"The national is slowly losing its grip on people's minds, but the global has not yet ascended to the commanding heights once occupied by its predecessor. It erupts in fits and false starts, offering observers confusing spectacles of social fragmentation and integration that cut across old geographical hierarchies in unpredictable patterns.
"Consider, for example, the arduous processes of regional economic and political integration that are limping along on all continents. And yet, expanding formations like the European Union - however chronic their internal tensions - have become far more integrated than most observers predicted only a decade ago. The short duration and unevenness of today's globalisation dynamics make it impossible to paint a clear picture of the New World Order. But the first rays of the rising global imaginary have provided enough light to capture the contours of a profoundly altered ideological landscape."
Astoundingly, "this book has been written for both academics (sic) with a scholarly interest in the subject matter and general readers keen to explore ideology's journey". Consider, for example, the plight of that wishful (re)construction, the general reader. She would be well advised to turn first to Saskia Sassen, and the newly updated Territory, Authority, Rights (2008); and, for a masterclass in outreach and outrage, John Gray's Black Mass (2007).
For her stock of cherishable facts, however, she may wish to salt away the following: in 2003, Dick Cheney sent a Christmas card to friends and supporters that read: "And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?" The quotation is from Benjamin Franklin.
The Rise of the Global Imaginary: Political Ideologies from the French Revolution to the Global War on Terror
By Manfred B. Steger. Oxford University Press. 336pp, £17.50. ISBN 9780199286935. Published 3 July 2008