‘Bloch-Wörterbuch: Leitbegriffe der Philosophie Ernst Blochs’ reviewed by Catherine Moir

, and (eds)
Bloch-Wörterbuch: Leitbegriffe der Philosophie Ernst Blochs

De Gruyter, Berlin and Boston, 2012. 746pp., € 149,95 hb
ISBN 9783110205725

Reviewed by Catherine Moir

About the reviewer

Catherine Moir is completing a PhD on the contemporaneity of Bloch’s speculative materialism …


From Raymond Williams’ Keywords to Theodor W. Adorno’s Philosophische Terminologie, Badiou’s Key Concepts to the Hegel and Heidegger dictionaries of Michael Inwood, compendia of the philosophical and theoretical terminologies of individual thinkers are legion and popular in English. The recently published Bloch-Wörterbuch makes a systematic account of the terminology of Ernst Bloch available for the first time in German. That such an undertaking remains outstanding in English will not shock most of those already familiar with Bloch: apart from his magnum opus The Principle of Hope as well as one or two other key works, most of Bloch’s oeuvre remains as yet untranslated, although the forthcoming Bloch Bibliothek series from Historical Materialism books is set to change that. Nevertheless, although the editors of the Bloch-Wörterbuch argue that, also in Germany, Bloch’s work has up to now not enjoyed the reception it deserves, in the English-speaking world it has historically been more meagre still. Alongside those early Anglophone exegetes such as Douglas Kellner, Wayne Hudson and Jack Zipes who recognised the importance of Bloch’s work already in his own lifetime, so in 1971 Frederic Jameson said of Bloch’s system that it ‘stands as a solution to problems of a universal culture and a universal hermeneutic which have not yet come into being,’ and thus ‘lies before us, enigmatic and enormous, like an aerolite fallen from space, covered with mysterious hieroglyphs that radiate a peculiar inner warmth and power, spells and the keys to spells, themselves patiently waiting for their own ultimate moment of decipherment’ (Frederic Jameson, Marxism and Form, Princeton University Press, 1971: 159). Perhaps the Bloch-Wörterbuch is therefore best understood as itself a key to deciphering Bloch’s enigmatic and enormous body of work.

One of the central problems with Bloch is the path he treads between Marxism and philosophy. Although, as the editors acknowledge in their Foreword (v), Bloch’s philosophy was keenly received by students (some of whom contribute to the volume) in Leipzig and Tübingen where he taught, and his utopian political thought in particular enjoyed prominence at the height of the ‘68 movement in Germany, his overall philosophical project has nevertheless not yet been accorded its rightful place, a desideratum which this work intends to fulfil. One of the issues in this regard, the editors note, is that Bloch moves decisively beyond systematic idealist philosophy, without however abandoning the Hegelian heritage or the insights of late German idealism, particularly Schelling’s, but also without neglecting the more recent insights of materialist thinking (v). Indeed, Bloch’s reception of idealism is one of the reasons why he has so often being characterised as an ‘unorthodox’ Marxist thinker, as Silvia Mazzini remarks (230). Wolfgang Fritz Haug’s piece on Bloch’s Marxism is therefore all the stronger a contribution for tracing Bloch’s creative development of Marxist theoretical vocabulary. In order to understand Bloch’s Marxism, Haug and Mazzini in particular point to his distinction between a cold stream associated with ideology critique and the precise analysis of socio-historical conditions, and a warm stream identified with humanism, emancipation and Bloch’s singular notion of anticipatory consciousness, or the not-yet-conscious. Although Bloch insists that the warm and the cold streams need one another in order for Marxist practice to be effective, his own approach is nevertheless heavily inflected by his commitment to a warm stream he sees as having been neglected in the name of orthodoxy. Bloch’s decidedly utopian leanings can thus be seen to contradict (or for some perhaps reinforce) his controversial political alignment with Stalinism during the 1950s. Although this ambiguous stance remains problematic, Bloch’s reception is arguably no longer fettered by the univocal interpretation of the Marxist literary corpus he experienced in his own time. While the editors of the Bloch-Wörterbuch perceive Bloch’s explicitly, if difficult, Marxist position as a potential problem for his contemporary reception (a concern more sensitive in the German than in the Anglophone context, perhaps?) and despite the conviction driving the volume that Bloch’s work is in need of reappraisal primarily as philosophy, the book navigates the problem of Bloch as a Marxist philosopher remarkably successfully, making a convincing case for a Blochian enrichment of the Marxist canon.

In addition to its deft treatment of the coeval concerns of Marxism and philosophy in Bloch’s thought, the Bloch-Wörterbuch has many strong points. Although each entry begins with a short introductory paragraph explaining the concept in Bloch’s own terms, it then proceeds to offer an in-depth examination in historical perspective, taking in the key moments of the term’s development throughout the history of philosophy and critical theory; or, where a concept has no clearly identifiable forerunner, such as Bloch’s Noch-Nicht, or not-yet, the entry explores the background of its emergence, in this case the historical development of ontologies of possibility. This approach certainly makes the encyclopaedic reach of the work appealing beyond a specialist interest in Bloch. Moreover, the way in which concepts are linked, such as Johan Siebers’ treatment of the concatenated terms of Bloch’s categorial framework Front, Novum and Ultimum, is also instructive.

When compiling a volume such as this, deciding what to include and what not is clearly no easy task. The most significant aspects of Bloch’s thought and its reception are covered by the volume’s entries. Several articles stand out in this regard, not least Siebers’ piece on Noch-Nicht, which he describes as the most succinct formulation of the key original idea of Bloch’s philosophy (403). Noch-Nicht indicates the ontological incompleteness of a world in the experimental process towards possible identity with itself. Another key article, Francesca Vidal’s Ästhetik, thematises an area of Bloch’s philosophy which has been put to particularly fruitful use in literary and cultural studies. However, what is perhaps missing in this context is an account of Bloch’s method of utopian critique, articulated elsewhere by Kellner in particular. Beat Dietschy offers a clear and profound engagement with Bloch’s concept of Ungleichzeitigkeit (translated variously into English as non-synchronicity and non-contemporaneity), which captures the presence of different temporal elements in the same moment or conjunctural constellation and is recognised as one of Bloch’s most significant contributions to Marxist theoretical terminology.

Another fine aspect of the book is that it manages in places to show Bloch’s thought in a new light. Several articles, not least Beat Dietschy and Rainer Zimmermann’s piece on Bloch’s concept of the Multiversum as the actual ontological condition of a material world in becoming, challenge the image of Adorno’s erstwhile objection that Bloch fails to escape an outdated identity thinking (cf. Laura Boella, ‘Spuren,’ 513). Moreover, although Bloch’s struggle with metaphysics can at first sight make his work seem outmoded against the contemporary background of post-metaphysical thinking, as the editors of the Bloch-Wörterbuch point out, many of the metaphysical themes with which Bloch was concerned are being revisited by contemporary thinkers (v). In the English-speaking context, one could point to Iain Hamilton Grant, whose recent interpretation of Schelling’s Naturphilosophie finds resonances in a series of entries in the Bloch-Wörterbuch on nature, from Zeilinger and Zimmermann in particular.

Indeed, when read through the lens of work being done elsewhere in contemporary European thought, the Bloch-Wörterbuch can be seen to situate Bloch helpfully in today’s theoretical landscape. Siebers’ account of Bloch as a thinker of the new or Novum highlights concordances with Badiou’s theory of the event; Bloch’s Noch-Nicht is a clear precursor to the ‘non-All’ of Žižek’s radical materialism, and his reworking of Aristotelian concepts into a philosophy of matter as a dynamic and agentic force connects him to the so-called new materialisms by way of figures like Deleuze. Furthermore, Hans Heinz Holz’s piece on speculative materialism brings Bloch into conversation with contemporary French thinker Quentin Meillassoux, whose own work has been characterised as a speculative materialism: the divergences are as interesting as the parallels.

The problem with the Bloch-Wörterbuch in this regard is that such connections are neglected in favour of a more historical viewpoint. This is admittedly perhaps unsurprising, given that the book’s aim is primarily to systematise a challenging conceptual framework and document the current state of academic Bloch research (vi). However, another somewhat regrettable aspect in view of the growing scholarly interest in Bloch work outside of Germany is that there are so few international contributors to the volume. With his excellent article on Bloch’s concept of Mensch, Peter Thompson’s is the only Anglophone voice. The Russian Ivan Boldyrev’s joint piece with Hans-Ernst Schiller on Entfremdung also marks the only contribution by an early-career Bloch scholar. Although one could argue that these are secondary questions – and indeed, the composition of the editorial and authorial team is in no way an obstacle to the quality of the entries – it perhaps does little to address a perceived marginality of Bloch research, which moreover appears from the international perspective to be slowly changing.

When all said and done, the Bloch-Wörterbuch is a thorough and exacting, not to mention long overdue, systematisation of Bloch’s conceptual framework. Furthermore, it is a beautiful, if prohibitively expensive, publication. Yet it arguably suffers from a problem common in the literature on Bloch, which tends to present his work as ‘overlooked,’ highlighting its inadequate scholarly reception and politically motivated marginalisation (cf. ‘Vorwort’). This manifests itself in an occasionally almost apologetic tone where the exegesis of Bloch’s philosophy is concerned, or in a perceived need to yoke Bloch together with celebrated historical figures rather than feeling free to recognise Bloch as a historically significant thinker in his own right. A case in point in this regard in the Bloch-Wörterbuch would be Sartre. Although existentialist concerns clearly motivate Bloch, the extent to which he can be seen as an existentialist in a Sartrean vein is, I think, questionable and the emphasis and ubiquity of this identification therefore feels somewhat misplaced. For what the Bloch-Wörterbuch shows above all, though sometimes in spite of itself, is that no apologetics are needed when it comes to the rigour of Bloch’s thought and its relevance today. It may well be the case that the historical conditions have up to now never quite been right for a fertile Bloch reception. However, with the recent change in temperature of an intellectual climate in which questions are once again being seriously posed as to the possibility and desirability of the universal culture and hermeneutic to which Jameson referred, it seems Bloch’s utopian materialist philosophy is now ripe for fresh engagement.

3 May 2013

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