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Postmodern Shifts

At the close of the twentieth century and on the edge of postmodernity, we are witnessing transformations as rapid as they are radical. The emergence of new and pervasive configurations of power, the contraction, systematic distortion, and inexorable displacement of public speech and space, the rise of politics as spectacle with the advent of mass-mediated publics, the increasing permeability of national “sovereignty” to the global movement and metabolism of capital, people, goods, information, images, and viruses, both biological and digital, together with the appearance of increasingly heterogeneous identities, practices, and forms of life—these are but a few of the most widely visible structural transformations currently reconfiguring the terrain of contemporary politics.[6] Such transformations have posed a fundamental challenge to the conceptual categories and political vocabularies of the modern enlightenment. As a result, the terms of debate have begun to shift away from “politics as usual” as new concerns are raised and new demands are issued that remained inarticulate within the confines of an older practice and discourse. Recent years have witnessed the emergence of a “new politics of protest” in the liberal democracies of the West that is both sign and symptom of modernity’s unstable foundations. Unchartable by means of the traditional coordinates of class, group, or self-interest, largely indifferent to the material goods distributed by the welfare state, suspicious of (or opposed to) electoral success and the official systems of party and parliament, the new politics challenges the very foundations of enlightened modernity and continues to provoke a fundamental rethinking of its grounds, goals, and practices.

Although the issues, scenes, and groupings transform themselves daily, these diverse challenges to enlightenment hegemony are obvious to even the most casual ethnographer of contemporary North American politics. In past decades, the peace, antinuclear, and environmental movements have actively resisted both the material affluence of consumer culture and the destructive potential of an administrative state and a global system of transnational capitalism locked into the logic of technical control, mastery, and domination. More recently, a politics of identity and difference has begun to assert itself against a hegemonic European cultural tradition advertised as universal history. For today’s cheeky consumers of culture, the West has lost its universal appeal precisely at a time when it can no longer appeal to universals. In a society increasingly fragmented by centrifugal displacements of once-centered authority and community, fierce struggles over local identities, although they hardly approach the violent intensity of the resurgent nationalisms that have recently swept the Balkans, pose a new and unruly challenge to the current politics of cultural hegemony. These radical dispersals continue to engender a rapid proliferation of new social codes, which are just as rapidly transformed into a micropolitics of difference based on supressed, submerged, or otherwise ignored narratives of ethnicity, gender, race, religion, sexuality, class, and other cultural (and subcultural) affiliations. Such affiliations range from the now highly differentiated women’s movement to queer politics, from the hardcore urban scene, with its punks, gangsters, crack, and guns, to the more innocuous suburban landscape of shopping malls, MTV, designer drugs, television talk shows, late night movies, and alternative music scene.[7]

Whatever the social code or subcultural milieu, the new politics of difference presently asserts itself against the falsely universalized projection of a unitary European history, culture, and identity. In myriad locations and in strikingly inventive ways, resistant and rebellious selves continue to struggle against current enlightenment assumptions that define the “subjects” of politics. Through agonal acts of resistance to contemporary cultural hegemony, new subjects, selves, identities, and practices are presently being fashioned and refashioned. These most recent challenges to enlightenment hegemony endeavor to open up political spaces for contesting present forms of cultural exclusion, domination, and hierarchy.

In the academy, the current struggles against politics as usual have inspired (and been explained by) that loose alliance of feminists, multiculturalists, and poststructuralists suspicious of the universal categories that are the Enlightenment’s legacy. What this diverse group of critics threatens to uncover and unsettle are the founding fictions of the Enlightenment itself, its pretensions to, and promises of, truth, reason, and individual liberty, packaged as universal moral progress. Whether the issue is the recovery and deployment of suppressed and heterogeneous subject positions, the unmasking of universal concepts as differential markers of race, class, or gender, the deployment of rhetorical figurations as “governing representations” in contemporary politics, or the current struggles against newly intensified forms of discipline and the subsequent refashioning of resistant selves and alternative (political) spaces from the cultural materials at hand, these critics demonstrate that our fundamental enlightenment categories have been conjured from the acts of exclusion, subjugation, and repression that attended their origin. Attempts to unsettle these constructions reveal that the shifting terrain of postmodernity owes much of its instability to the already-present fault lines that traverse its enlightenment foundations.[8] The current contests are fought in and along these seams as attempts to disperse a singular origin, resist homogenizing categories, expose settled vocabularies, practices, and institutions as strategic deployments of power, and reveal the modern subject of enlightened reason as discursively and historically constructed, as the effect of a struggle over meanings as much as the author of those meanings.

Such struggles continue to redefine the contours of the present political moment, and they have provoked lively, often acrimonious, debates in recent years (and across a wide range of academic disciplines) about the meaning, status, and fate of modernity and the Enlightenment. Much of this controversy has been articulated through the juxtaposition of temporal categories, in terms of succeeding—and embattled—periods or eras: postindustrialism, postphilosophy, poststructuralism, post-Marxism, and posthistoire confront and attempt to replace their prefixless affiliates. But the central terms of this contest, around which the greatest controversy turns, are the categories modern and postmodern, and the crucial figures in that debate are Jürgen Habermas and the late Michel Foucault.

In articulating the dilemmas, disappointments, and aspirations of our time, Habermas and Foucault have largely defined the controversy over the origins, meaning, and future of postmodernity. Virtually every current theoretical reflection on politics takes its bearings from their coordinates and engages their positions, if not by way of agreement, then certainly by way of critique.[9] Yet these chartings of postmodern geography issue in two radically divergent cartographic projections of the present, two contending and ultimately irreconcilable maps, which leave little room for further exploration. The result has been a debate whose terms have congealed into rigid polarities. Are we to understand the recent shifts as instances of a reactive and pathological politics generated by the unresolved contradictions within modernity itself, or as the material out of which new political subjects, selves, identities, and practices are fashioned? Do the answers to such contradictions lie in the reconstruction of reason and the reaffirmation of such universal values as liberty, autonomy, and democratic equality, or must we deconstruct reason, radically redefine those values as projections of power, and overcome all forms of universality? Can we retrieve and reinstitutionalize a democratic public sphere from the materials left us by the eighteenth century, or shall we disrupt its normatively regulated democratic code with a performative and endlessly subversive politics of parody?

These questions do not admit of easy answers, and given a contest structured by such unyielding oppositions, it is unlikely that anything new can be said in its present terms. Yet such questions need answers, and finding them is the challenge confronting us. This study forges neither a modern nor a postmodern path through the disputed terrain, siding with neither Habermas nor Foucault. Nor does it seek to reconcile the contending sides through a mediation that would, in good Hegelian fashion, effect a grand synthesis of the two positions and so cauterize the dialectic of the debate. I want, rather, to resist the terms of the debate and disturb its projections, to plot an alternative route through this shifting landscape by mapping the alien thought of ancient Athens onto the terrain of postmodernity. This mapping intends to open up fresh possibilities for dialogue by prompting new and different combinations of tired patterns and tested paths, by unsettling present accommodations with ways of being and modes of knowing that are no longer familiar. But before I begin to trace the route taken by this book, it is best to survey the terrain already mapped out in the dispute between Habermas and Foucault.

The lines of that dispute were solidified, if not drawn, some ten years ago when Habermas took up the challenge issued by the neostructuralist critique of reason. Piqued by this Nietzschean-inspired attack on the emancipatory project of modernity, Habermas initiated the first serious dialogue between the German and French intellectual traditions in recent memory.[10] Foucault died before he could actively join the dispute, so it was left to others (of whom there has been no shortage) to advance his position. As a result, the controversy over the transition from modernity to postmodernity—the “debate” between Habermas and Foucault sketched here—represents less a chronicle of actual exchanges than a charting of the significant points that structure their differences. Those differences constitute nothing less than a struggle over terms such as enlightenment,truth,theory, and democracy, which are fundamental to securing—defining—the character of postmodernity and its fate. The meaning of enlightenment itself, the possibility of knowledge liberated from power or interest, the status of theoretical discourse, and the future of democratic culture and practice are currently up for grabs. Although the contest sketched here must remain something of a historical fiction, it accurately and usefully represents the oppositions and predicaments in which the dispute over postmodernity has entangled itself.

To the extent that Habermas looks to the unrealized potential of modernity, he allies himself with the progressive and emancipatory claims of enlightenment. The completion of cultural modernity means for him the realization of such liberal and universal bourgeois goals as autonomy, equality, liberty, and emancipation—in short, all the goals of enlightened reason. The problem with modernity is not, as his Nietzscheans claim, too much reason—an excess—but rather too little—a deficit. Enlightenment has not reversed itself; rather, rationalization has either not yet been achieved, has not been institutionalized, or has proceeded one-sidedly in favor of an instrumental reason embodied in technical-scientific enterprises, the capitalist economy, and the bureaucratic state. None of this means, of course, that the enlightenment project of emancipation is unsound or that its liberatory potential is in any way seriously diminished or threatened. It does mean that the modern enlightenment has not yet achieved its potential and must therefore complete its “project.”[11]

Foucault rejects the very assumptions on which enlightenment is predicated, ironically observing that the enlightenment rhetoric of liberation—whether it is bound up with the discourses of psychological, physical, or social therapies—insidiously contains and conceals its own subtle forms of coercion. Rational speech surely establishes communication, but it also establishes barriers to communication. The streamlined, functional, and efficient language of modern science—both natural and social—achieves a transparency of description that serves to exclude or silence the elements of experience that do not fit neatly into a preconceived schema. Run through the endless mills of speech, we are constantly in danger of falling prey to the various techniques of truth that promise to make us free, enlightened, autonomous beings, techniques that promise liberation even as they deprive us of our liberty. “The irony of this deployment,” writes Foucault, “is in having us believe that our ‘liberation’ is in the balance.”[12] Enlightenment thus paradoxically brings both liberation and slavery, freedom and constraint, self-conscious transparency and blind opacity about who we are and what we are doing.

To redeem the promise of the Enlightenment, Habermas elaborates a theory of communicative rationality as both diagnostic aid and normative ideal. A more differentiated concept of communicative reason allows him to preserve and pursue a selective critique of modernity, the spread of instrumental rationality, and the attendant colonization of potentially democratic political space, which further depends on the elaboration of an “ideal speech situation.” Uncoerced speech guarantees a strong normative standard, freed from the constraints of structural violence, inequality, and communicative distortion. Only under such conditions of “rationally motivated agreement”—the telos implicit in all human speech—can we distinguish between genuine and false consensus, the legitimate and illegitimate exercise of power, just and unjust regimes.[13]

But Habermas’s appeal to the “unforced force of the better argument” only works if he can specify a rationality that is truly universal, context-independent, and freed from every constraint of passion or interest. For Foucault, this quest for universal agreement is but the modern analogue of Socratic dialogue, which seeks to limit power by appealing to knowledge of the good. But since all discourse already contains its own politics of truth, there can be no truth exterior to any particular discursive regime. Power and knowledge are inextricably intertwined in a relationship of mutual constitution. The Socratic hope of a knowledge beyond the limits of power, which it would in turn limit, is a fiction. Power can neither be the manifestation of consensus nor the product of communication. Power, rather, is strategic. In the move and countermove of a game, power comes into play as “a relationship which is at the same time reciprocal incitation and struggle, less a face to face confrontation which paralyzes both sides than a permanent provocation.” Neither the pristine model of Socratic dialogue nor the ideal speech situations that issue in community and consent, but the sophistic “agonism” of constant contest, struggle, and resistance, “the endlessly repeated play of dominations,” best describes modern power relations, as well as Foucault’s own subversion of hegemonic discourses.[14]

Although Habermas wishes to distinguish his further differentiation of reason and the selective critique of modernity that follows it from what he regards as “total” theories, he is still engaged in explaining and criticizing a societywide phenomena. Is such a global discourse so bad? After all, a conceptual system such as critical theory interprets a complex world and in that regard is a necessary component of our everyday lives. Systems call for an orderly organization and presentation of experience, without which we could not survive. Moreover, critical theory hardly constitutes an apology or justification for present social and political configurations. Unlike that master of all systems-thinkers, Hegel, Habermas in no way offers another theodicean explanation for suffering. The difficulty for theory construction—critical theory included—is to make sense out of the world of people and things while doing it, and them, the least violence possible. All conceptual thought must negotiate the distance between too much unity and coherence and too little, between the system and the individual, between global and local discourse.[15]

Where critical theory universalizes the concept of reason by implicitly relying on the enlightenment narrative of progress, Foucault suspects all master narratives as “global” theories that attempt to unify the irreducible heterogeneity of the world. For the genealogist, it is precisely critical theory’s claim systematically to encompass the whole of reality that condemns it. Against a conceptual system like Habermas’s, Foucault’s genealogies consistently remind the reader of the tremendous and irreparable damage wrought by modernity, which the critical theorist is apt to overlook. Foucault continually invokes the lives that have been damaged, lost, or destroyed, the experiences that have been elided, subjugated, or repressed by the smooth, seamless functioning of hierarchically ordered systems of knowledge. This invocation of the suppressed contents of history—of individuals and their lives who do not fit into the system without remainder—aims to resist, disrupt, subvert, and otherwise contest the tyranny of globalizing discourses.[16]

Above all, Habermas and Foucault have underscored the dilemmas of democracy in the postmodern world. Originally construed as a radical, transformative force in modernity, democracy now appears tame, its revolutionary capacity (at least in eastern Europe) spent, channeled into the search for markets, consumer goods, and Western technology. At home, the imperatives of the accumulation of capital and power have all but eroded what democratic public space we might have had. Against this trend, critical theory aims at securing and maintaining a space for democratic speech and action that cannot be absorbed by the systemic constraints of material reproduction. This space would contain institutions to guarantee an effectively functioning democratic public sphere, in which the goals of society were submitted to public discussion and decisions made based on the rational achievement of agreement. Only in this manner will deliberating citizens, speaking and acting together, secure and maintain a viable democratic public sphere.[17]

Despite this genuine concern with consensus and democratic will formation, there is a blind spot in the theory of consensus that conceals democracy’s potentially normalizing effects. Although Habermas no longer posits the “ideal speech situation” as a transcendental category, his weaker claim that consensus is immanent in all speech still implies an ideal or norm that excludes other nonrational forms of expression as invalid because they fall below or outside the acceptable threshold of normality, of what counts as a reasonable or rational argument. That exclusion, of course, is all the more insidious because it is concealed by the promise of freedom. The very democratic norms that critical theory champions—in this case, those enabling the free, rational, and responsible agent to arrive at uncoerced consensus—function to delegitimate all that is “other” in self and society. Those feelings, motives, experiences, and desires that remain inarticulate within the schema prescribed by an ideal discourse subsequently become the objects of disciplinary control and normalization. What Habermas specifies as the distinctive characteristics of democratic character and culture seem to satisfy criteria of symmetry and reciprocity. Yet those necessary qualities obscure the very real power exercised by the politics of cultural hegemony. In his failure to ask which subjects and what forms of selfhood are privileged or empowered by this version of the democratic self, Habermas similarly fails to identify those selves that are silenced, subjugated, or disempowered by such a privileging. Foucault, to his credit, has taught us to recognize in the culture of democratic consensus the dangers of this drift toward those homogenizing and dividing practices that define, contain, and discipline the individual. But can postmodern democrats rest content with Foucault’s concept of “resistance”—of the local struggle against regimes of power/knowledge—as a viable contribution to a theory of democratic politics?

Such are the dilemmas of postmodernity sketched within the contours of the present controversy. This contest leaves us with a series of unsatisfying choices: either an enlightened modernity blind to its coercive effects or the renunciation of all forms of emancipatory practice as subtle forms of normalizing control; either the effects of a truth that naively conceals its debt to power or an endless struggle for position and dominance; either a foundational theory unaware of its own violent exclusions or the repudiation of all theoretical foundations; and, finally, either a democratic practice and culture resting on constitutive exclusions or the rejection of democracy as one more element in the ensemble of disciplinary technologies. What these choices ultimately suggest—and why they must be resisted—is a refusal to think the difficult dilemmas of postmodernity in tension, to imagine the contradictions within these categories (and within the Enlightenment itself) as fruitful ground for further exploration, rather than as obstacles to be removed. For the very impasse of the debate indicates that the unsettling dangers of disruption, contest, contingency, and resistance that disturb our lives can no more be displaced or avoided than the comfortable seductions of order, truth, reason, and democratic progress that make such disturbances both necessary and meaningful. Whereas critical theory succumbs too readily to the easy nostalgia of settlement and permanence (while remaining fearfully impervious to the liberating aspects of disturbance), genealogy celebrates the dangerous freedom of contingency and contest, while dismissing the force and appeal of order, center, and stability. I would like to think there are choices here, but I am not willing to concede that they are the ones offered by Habermas and Foucault. In a debate that has been constructed far too narrowly, its terms overly polarized, their responses constitute subtle evasions of the difficult task of negotiating the perplexing terrain of the postmodernity these theorists have themselves so painstakingly charted.

As a preliminary indication of my own direction of travel across that terrain, I would like to pose these dilemmas differently, perceptibly altering the frame of reference. Can we remain committed to the principles of the Enlightenment, yet resist its regressive tendencies toward domination? Is it possible to pursue the truth yet relentlessly politicize the conditions of its production? Can we satisfy our profound need to make sense of the world through the construction of theoretical wholes and still disturb such orderly representations so as to resist the seductive tyranny of globalizing discourse? Finally, what are the prospects for encouraging a democratic culture and practice that simultaneously resist democracy’s drift toward normalization and disciplinary control? These questions, while acknowledging the force of the dilemma, open up more room for thought, more opportunity for recombining old patterns in new ways. To think these oppositions in tension is the central object of this study, which does not rest content with either regulative reason codified as disciplinary norm or the endless subversion of all normative codes. But where shall we turn for help in negotiating the ironic reversals of the Enlightenment, the politicization of knowledge, the seductions and dangers of foundational theory, the dilemmas of democracy? My answer: the tragic poetry and philosophical dialogue of ancient Athens.

Whether we want to reconstruct an effectively functioning democratic politics or disrupt newly intensified forms of discipline, the classical past offers an alternative way of thinking about our present predicament that a thoroughgoing modern (or postmodern) perspective lacks. If, as Foucault suggests, we are indeed “normalizing” ourselves via ever more efficient mechanisms of surveillance, discipline, and subjectification, then Greek tragedy’s examples of virtuosic action, as well as its preoccupation with the “other,” with what falls below, behind, or beyond the threshold of the culturally and socially acceptable and intelligible, will provide an indispensable point of reference for identifying and disrupting modern forces of normalization and discipline from within a democratic tradition. If, as Habermas has argued, economic and bureaucratic forms of rationality are systematically eroding and replacing the communicative structures of public speech and action (upon which democratic politics largely depend), then the concern of Greek tragedy and philosophical dialogue with moral communication and debate—the deliberative aspects of the classical polis—can stand as a valuable resource for contemporary democratic theory and practice, even as they warn us of the potentially normalizing effects of democratic consensus. Greek tragedy and philosophical dialogue contribute most toward theorizing the present when their disturbing content is wrenched out of its original context and appropriated to disrupt the established norms and forms of democratically constituted selves and societies, even as they provide a democratic identity and practice against which to struggle.

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