NY Times July 11, 2001
What Is The Next Big Idea? Buzz Is Growing for 'Empire'
By EMILY EAKIN
DURHAM, N.C. — It comes along only once every decade or so, typically arriving without much fanfare. But soon it is everywhere: dominating conferences, echoing in lecture halls, flooding scholarly journals. Every graduate student dreams of being the one to think it
up: the Next Big Idea.
In the 1960's it was Claude Lévi-Strauss and structuralism. In the 1970's and 1980's it was Jacques Derrida and deconstruction, Michel Foucault and poststructuralism and Jacques Lacan and psychoanalysis, followed by various theorists of postcolonialism and New Historicism.
And now scholars are wondering if the latest contender for academia's next master theorist is Michael Hardt, a self-effacing, 41-year-old associate professor of literature at Duke University and the co-author of "Empire," a heady treatise on globalization that is sending frissons of excitement through campuses from São Paulo to Tokyo.
Since Harvard University Press published the book in March last year, translation rights have been sold in 10 countries, including Japan and Croatia; the leading Brazilian newspaper has put it on the cover of its Sunday magazine; and Dutch television has broadcast a documentary about it. Fredric Jameson, America's leading Marxist literary critic, has called it "the first great new theoretical synthesis of the new millennium," while the equally eminent Slovenian political philosopher Slavoj Zizek has declared it "nothing less than a rewriting of the `The Communist Manifesto' for our time."
During the same period, Mr. Hardt has given 21 academic talks and received tenure from Duke (a year early). And the compliments keep coming.
"He's definitely hot," said Xudong Zhang, a professor of comparative literature and East Asian Studies at New York University, who taught a graduate seminar on "Empire" for the second time this spring. Masao Miyoshi, a professor of literature at the University of California at San Diego, said, "He's one of the very few younger people who will have an impact."
There is no question that Mr. Hardt is unusually talented. But talent alone does not provoke scholarly commotion. Other factors must also be at work. For one thing, the topic must be in vogue; and globalization happens to be the trendy subject right now.
Then there is the allure of Mr. Hardt's flamboyant co-author, Antonio Negri, a 68- year-old Italian philosopher and suspected terrorist mastermind who is serving a 13- year prison sentence in Rome for inciting violence during the turbulent 1970's.
In large part, however, the fuss over Mr. Hardt and "Empire" is about something else: the need in fields like English, history and philosophy for a major new theory. "Literary theory has been dead for 10 years," said Stanley Aronowitz, a sociologist at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. "The most important point about `Empire' is that Michael is addressing the crisis in the humanities, which has reached the point where banality seems to pervade the sphere."
Indeed, by the end of the 1990's, the sweeping approaches of the previous decades had been exhausted. Yet no powerful new idea emerged to take their place. A deep pessimism crept over the humanities. Today, scholars complain, their fields are fragmented and rudderless.
So just what does a disquisition on globalization have to offer scholars in crisis?
First, there is the book's broad sweep and range of learning. Spanning nearly 500 pages of densely argued history, philosophy and political theory, it features sections on imperial Rome, Haitian slave revolts, the American Constitution and the Persian Gulf war, and references to dozens of thinkers like Machiavelli, Spinoza, Hegel, Hobbes, Kant, Marx and Foucault. In short, the book has the formal trappings of a master theory in the old European tradition.
Then there is the theory itself. Globalization isn't simply the latest phase in the history of imperialism and nation-states, the authors declare. It's something radically new. Where other scholars and the media depict countries vying for control of world markets, Mr. Hardt and Mr. Negri instead discern a new political system and a new form of power taking root. They call it Empire.
Unlike historical empires, however, this one has no emperor, no geographic capital and no single seat of power. In fact, given the authors' abstruse formulation, it's almost easier to say what Empire isn't than what it is: a fluid, infinitely expanding and highly organized system that encompasses the world's entire population. It's a system that no one person, corporation or country can control. (It's also apparently still under construction. One hallmark of Empire is "supranational organisms," few of which seem to exist yet. The authors regard the United Nations, for example, as a precursor of a "real supranational center.")
More surprising still, Empire is good news: it's potentially the most democratic political system to hit the face of the earth. As Mr. Hardt puts it, "The thing we call Empire is actually an enormous historical improvement over the international system and imperialism." The reason? Because power under Empire is widely dispersed, so presumably just about anyone could affect its course.
"Empire creates a greater potential for revolution than did the modern regimes of power," the authors write, "because it presents us, alongside the machine of command, with an alternative: the set of all the exploited and the subjugated, a multitude that is directly opposed to Empire, with no mediation between them."
The book is full of such bravura passages. Whether presenting new concepts — like Empire and the multitude — or urging revolution, it brims with confidence in its ideas. Does it have the staying power and broad appeal necessary to become the next master theory? It is too soon to say. But for the moment, "Empire" is filling a void in the humanities.
For literary scholars it is evidence that the work they do is politically important. They are not simply analyzing Milton's religious convictions or parsing "Finnegans Wake," they argue, but shedding light on the way the world really works. Consider deconstruction; it revolutionized scholars' understanding of language. Lacanian psychoanalysis did the same for the human psyche. In a similar way, "Empire" lays out a new way of thinking about global politics. When it comes to understanding current events, the book insists, even literary scholars have something important to contribute. And at a moment of disciplinary crisis, that's a message that's bound to appeal.
Michèle Lamont, a sociologist at Princeton University, argued as much in a famous article titled "How to Become a Dominant French
Philosopher: The Caseof Jacques Derrida," which appeared in The American Journal of Sociology in 1987. She concluded that Mr. Derrida's popularity had less to do with the intrinsic value of his ideas than with his "sophisticated writing style," "distinctive theoretical framework" and lucky timing. Deconstruction, she wrote, "was an answer to a disciplinary crisis." His famously stylish clothes and his thick French accent didn't hurt either.
Of course, Mr. Hardt can't trade on credentials like those. Not that long ago he even had trouble finding a job. With a Ph.D. in comparative literature from the University of Washington at Seattle, he lacked both an Ivy League diploma and the kind of narrow specialization that many academic departments look for these days.
"I applied to French, Italian, English, political science and philosophy departments," he recalled recently over lunch at an Italian restaurant near the Duke campus. "But the reality of it is that almost no one would hire me."
With his soft voice, denim jacket and unruly dark hair, Mr. Hardt looks and sounds more like an idealistic graduate student than a rapidly rising star scholar. When he did land a job in the Italian department at the University of Southern California in 1993, he said, he found himself at odds with colleagues in his field.
"I went to a conference on Marx and deconstruction," he recalled. "I listened to a series of papers that were so convoluted and abstract. The speakers said they were talking about politics, but I couldn't understand a thing political about them. I was so frustrated after the weekend that on the Monday after, I called the state prison commission and found out how I could volunteer teaching at the local prison."
By this time he was already collaborating with Mr. Negri. Inspired by the Italian philosopher's writings and political activism, Mr. Hardt had asked a friend to introduce them during a visit to Paris, where Mr. Negri had fled to avoid serving his jail sentence. (In 1997, he returned to Rome — and went directly to prison.) They began collaborating on "Empire" in 1994.
From a professional standpoint, it was a risky move. Though Mr. Hardt had published a book of his own (on the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze), he had no obvious area of specialization. Moreover, interest in contemporary Italian philosophy was small in the United States.
For Mr. Hardt, the risks obviously paid off. Of course, his book has skeptics. Some say nation-states are as strong as ever; that the book fails to back up its theory with facts; that it's hobbled by Marxist ideology.
"The argument that the world exhibits a completely different power structure is at least grossly hyperbolic and more probably merely false," said John Gray, a professor of European thought at the London School of Economics, who has published his own critique of globalization, "False Dawn" (New Press, 1999). " `Empire' theorizes the current state of the world in a way which produces romantically alluring phrases that gloss over the actual conflicts, discontinuities, uncertainties and sheer unknowability of the world and its power relations today."
Such criticisms don't seem to bother Mr. Hardt. He says he is pleased that the book has found an audience outside what he calls "our small fanatical readership." He has few illusions that he is the next Derrida.
"I'm sure I'm not," he said. "Toni and I don't think of this as a very original book. We're putting together a variety of things that others have said. That's why it's been so well received. It's what people have been thinking but not really articulated."
And he readily concedes that "Empire" has flaws. Mr. Zizek complained that for a book that preaches revolution, it had an unforgivable omission: no how-to manual. Mr. Hardt agreed:
"I wrote him an e-mail and said, `Yes, it's true we don't know what the revolution should be.' And he wrote back saying, `Yeah, well, I don't know either.' "
Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company