For Godd’s Sake
The Spirit of Postmodernism
Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, 27 February 1993
It seemed that Marx had forgotten to add that not only worldhistorical events but also academic conferences occur twice, the
second time as farce. This conference was timed to coincide with
the publication of the papers collected from an earlier one,’ Shadow
of Spirit’. Curiously, the publication to which allusions were
made was nowhere in evidence; not in the foyer, not in the
bookshop, nor even at the launch party. Was this a sophisticated
new advertising gimmick; a book present only in its absence?
Give my animus against what is often advanced in the name
of post-modernism I came to the conference with low expectations. The introductory session easily failed to meet them. By the
time Andrew Wernick had set out the aims of the conference and
paid homage to the’ incommensurable diversity’ of the speakers,
it was already well behind schedule. Phillipa Berry and Charles
Jencks were left each with ten minutes in which to adumbrate the
new agenda of postmodern theology. This was never going to be
an easy task but was rendered more difficult still by Berry’s need
to adduce Kant, Nietzsche, Merleau-Ponty, Heidegger, Lacan,
Kierkegaard, Rimbaud, Foucault, Cornell, Derrida, Hegel, Plato
and Irigaray in the course of her talk. Armed with this panoply of
thinkers she pointed to the centrality of deconstruction to the
postmodern tradition. The best way out of the impasse of modernity was to run headlong into it, thus ‘opening up a new cognitive
space of postmodern knowing’ , which might (raising the stakes a
notch or two) prevent a repeat of the holocaust.
Charles Jencks with uncharacteristic insight spotted the irony
in deconstruction’ s being at the centre of any tradition, and
described this, with characteristic lucidity, as a ‘double-flip
headstand’. Unlike Berry he declined to talk philosophy. Instead,
forreasons known only to himself, he read out a ten minute lecture
on cosmo-genesis, quantum physics, and chaos theory, subjects in
which he was manifestly no expert and which he failed to render
in the least bit intelligible. The four horsemen of the apocalypse
were reductionism, mechanism, determinism and materialism (as
materialists Karl Marx, John Major, and Madonna received
special admonishment). With its quadrumvirate of ‘isms’ modernity had set about decimating the environment. Luckily postmodem science would put an end to all that. Jencks was not clear
about how the world would be saved, but it had something to do,
believe it or not, with a new religion, modelled on the avant-garde
and presided over (at the margins) by a figurehead named G-OD-D. Hitherto modernity had only destroyed other life-forms, in
various ways; the point however was to change the spelling.
If the introduction was at once the most embarrassing and
most memorable session, it was not the most interesting. The
ensuing exchange lined up John Milbank with Phillip Blond and
Toby Foshay, in what the chair announced as a ‘knockabout and
interactive format’. Foshay, speaking briefly without notes, did
not succeed in making the points of convergence and difference
between negative theology and deconstruction at all perspicuous.
He did succeed in irritating Milbank with his summary pronouncements on the Christian tradition, and in provoking a
barrage of high-volume sound-bytes ofunreconstructed Levinas
from Blond. After the chair intervened at the behest of a member
of the audience, to prevent all three panelists speaking at once,
three significant points emerged: (1) In its most extreme form
negative theology risks setting up another idol – an incomplete
and uncompletable task of negation, whence no form of politics
or ethics can emerge; (2) Following the death of God, the death of
man seems merely to complete the process of secularisation. At
this zero point however the secular world no longer understands
itself, since that against which it had defined itself no longer
exists. Here the relevance of theology becomes palpable; (3) The
God that is now supposed to be dead has since the seventeenth
century been widely misunderstood as a first (efficient) cause.
This theistic construction (which itselfleads to atheism) is by no
means representative of the whole Christian tradition.
The third panel discussed ‘French Feminism and the Divine’.
Eve Tavor Bennet held that French Feminism amounted to the
reinstatement of mythopoesis against the tradition. Alison Ainley
and Mornie Joy attempted to explicate the work of Kristeva and
Irigaray. Ainley, like Bennet, stressed the significance of the
somatic moment and defended French Feminism against the
accusation, levelled by nobody, that it was derived from or
homologous with Derridean and Lacanian theory. Ainley and Joy
emphasised the discontinuity of feminist discourse with the
logocentricity of philosophy and psychoanalytic theory. But how
does this strategy of mocking philosophy and embracing the
radical particularity of the feminine weld onto the political
struggle for recognition as legal persons?
Finally, on the subject of ‘Ethics and the Other’ Gillian Rose
agonised with the political effeteness of postmodernism. With a
condensed and impassioned performance she ‘nailed four theses
to the door’ of the ICA: If modernity is the death of God, postmodernity is the death of the Godhead; Postmodernism does not
overcome nihilism, it intensifies nihilism; Postmodernism only
gestures towards an other, and is not waving but drowning; the
perfection of the sublimity of postmodernism is the perfection of
the materialism of the market-place. For Rose too Marx was the
God that failed, but this does not entail that we can celebrate the
death of all politics. To shun power and knowledge is to capitulate
to it. On the contrary the subject must position itself with respect
to power and reason, in order to be a political animal. Joanna
Hodge then read out a carefully-worded reply to Rose’s article in
the absent volume, which she subtitled ‘the ten-minute Heidegger’.
She maintained that the space of politics was foreclosed, due to its
unsustainable metaphysical commitments. It remained only to
salvage ethics from the Zwischenraum between politics and
metaphysics. John Peacocke spoke on Buddhism, postmodernism
and Asian philosophy, subject matter enough for another whole
conference. How were we supposed to ‘develop an ear’ for what
I suspect was merely a token ‘other’ philosophy, whose representative had only ten minutes in which to make himself heard?
I left this conference with two convictions. Firstly, the
postmodern appropriation of theological discourse tends to mystify ‘otherness’ as an ideology-free zone. Here Jacques Lacan’s
injunction is apposite: ‘ … to begin with, you have to know what
an other is. The other – do not use this term as a mouthwash.’
Secondly, insofar as philosophy thinks to have severed all links
with theology it misunderstands itself. Radical philosophers
above all, if they do not want to lose their philosophy of history
to a developmental social-psychology, have to rethink its roots in
the theological tradition of Christian eschatology.
Radical Philosophy 64, Summer 1993
Going Beyond Habermas
Rethinking Critical Theory
University of Essex, 27 February 1993
This was a rare occasion in Britain, a conference on ‘Contemporary Issues in the Frankfurt School Tradition’. Opening the
conference, its organiser Peter Dews expressed the hope that this
would go some way towards encouraging more debate between
British and Continental intellectuals in the tradition, increasing
our prominence in a debate which has hitherto largely been
conducted between Continental and American intellectuals.
Dews suggested that an alternative title for the conference
could have been ‘How to get beyond Habermas’. Two of the five
speakers attempted to develop Habermas’ s version of Critical
Theory in order to address recent criticisms of it. Maeve Cooke
(University College, Dublin) sought to address reservations which
she shared about the way in which Habermas’ s discourse ethic
seemed to assume the possibility of transparent self-knowledge.
Unless we can have an undistorted knowledge of what we are
individually aiming at and what our needs are we cannot have an
undistorted dialogue with others.
To avoid this, Cooke suggested that we hold onto the distinctions between moral questions, questions of ethics, and questions
of our individual life choices. The discourse ethic, or the moral
theory of communicative action, applies only to the first of these
categories, although it is given an absolute privilege. Only when
we are discussing the most basic background principles of our
practices can we argue without referring back to our substantive
self-knowledge. This reduces Critical Theory to a defence of a
very thin moral framework circumscribing what Hegel called a
system of needs.
Dews’s paper began with the observation that Habermas’s
theory, unlike the early Critical Theory of Horkheimer, Adorno et
aI, did not use psychoanalytic theory substantively. This was seen
to be bound up with an absence of questions about gender and
sexual politics in his work. To begin to make good this lack Dews
proposed to look again at Horkheimer’ s 1936 essay ‘Authority
and the Family’, and across to Lacanian psychoanalytic theory.
He also drew upon the work of Jessica Benjamin to address
problems with Lacanian theory.
The discussion focused upon the dubious psychological assumptions of Habermas’ s notion of an ideal speech situation.
What happens to the unconscious? Doesn’t Habermas’s ideal of
a situation of undistorted communication imply the withering
away of the unconscious? By contrast, for Lacan, there is an
irreducible gap between consciousness and the unconscious.
Although, methodologicall y, Habermas represents a radical break
with early Critical Theory, he is continuous with its early
prioritisation of discursive reason and its ethic of the will. Yet the
ideal of a fully constitutive subject is undermined if we take the
constitutive function of the unconscious seriously.
Peter Osborne (Middlesex University) presented a paper
entitled ‘Criticism as Avant-Garde’. This dealt directly with the
issue of where critical theory should go from here. One possibility, said to be take by Peter Dews and Axel Honneth, involves
taking up Habermas’ s categories to develop them in ways that
Habermas has not envisaged. A second option involves returning
to Adorno. Osborne envisaged problems with both options. The
first involves a regression behind Critical Theory to a traditional
theoretical form; the second comes up against Adorno’ s relentless
negativity. Through that negativity Adorno empties Critical Theory
Radical Philosophy 64, Summer 1993
of all substantive theory. There is only critique.
Osborne’s aim seemed to be to hold on to the importance of
theory without losing the connection with historical experience.
For Osborne, what is required for this renewed concern with
history is a philosophy of historical time. Amongst other things,
this would question the simple opposition between modernity and
tradition which structures Habermas’ s work.
As the first snows of spring descended gracefully past the
common room window, Scott Lash (Lancaster University) gave
us a heated reminder of how the modem world had become even
more utilitarian and alienating with the emergence of the ‘information society’. Lash sought to distinguish between an idea of
modem reflexivity which affirmed the way in which the media
constitutes us as utilitarian preference-maximisers, and one which
goes beyond this to grasp the importance of a life-world threatened by such instrumentalism and the structures which promote
it. To develop the latter he drew upon the work of Pierre Bordieu.
The aim here was to underline the claim that the threat to the lifeworld was the problem to which Critical Theory needs to address
itself. Critical theorists like Habermas have tended to look for
principles as grounds for criticism, overlooking and taking for
granted the non-rule-bound Sitten, or customs, which constitute
our lifeworld, our Sittlichkeit. These Sitten rely upon, not the
recognition of rules, but the recognition of exemplars, and so they
involve a ‘logic’ which goes unthought if we assume an identification of reason with discursive reason.
The last paper, ‘Decentred Autonomy: The Subject After the
Fall’, by Axel Honneth (Freie UniversiUit, Berlin) set itself the
task of defending the idea of autonomy against the post-structuralist claim that it is redundant. The assumption here is that the
traditional notion of autonomy presupposes the subject’s transparency to itself, and a self-identity which is prior to its relation
to others. Once we recognise that the self is an other to itself, that
the identity of the self is socially constituted, and that the unconscious has a constitutive function, does the notion of autonomy
not become completely redundant? Once we recognise that the
subject is decentred in these ways can we any longer speak of the
subject as autonomous?
Honneth argued that rather than assume that decentring completely undermines autonomy, the idea can be developed to give
us a deeper understanding of the conditions for our autonomy.
However, to reconstrue the idea of autonomy as something made
possible by other factors – by relationships of mutual recognition,
for instance – we have to weaken the traditional notion.
Looking back over the conference, its sober consideration of
the substantive issues was refreshing. There was no devotional
incantation of sacred words, nor any fetishism of the obscure and
the gnomic. The variety of perspectives was also an asset. The
question of our response to Habermas is above all the question of
whether we need a quasi-transcendental grounding for Critical
Theory. Does this enable us to make sense of what is at stake in
our critical practice? Or do we need to rethink the relationship
between discourse and experience, recovering the idea of an
emphatic notion of truth – an ethically significant truth – which
Adorno took to be disclosed in what he called our metaphysical
Thinking with Blanchot
Was there really more than one Blanchot presented at ‘Maurice
Blanchot’ the international conference staged in London, 6-8
January 1993? For my part at least, only one was discernible. I
would call this the philosophical Blanchot, with a very strong
phenomenologicalleaning. This Blanchot would confront us with
questions that open up the terrain of thought that concerned
Heidegger: What is the being of language, for example? (This
question was addressed by Christopher Fynsk.) What is the
relationship between death and subjectivity? How can there by a
subject of death? What is an event? How can one ever grasp an
event if to do so is to destroy the very meaning of the event itself?
Or again, from a more socio-historical perspective, but with the
same logic in train: What sort of historical phenomenon is
Blanchot’s writing? Is it a desparate attempt (as Gillian Rose
suggested) to avoid ever giving any real insight into the nature of
death and politics, at both an individual and social level? Might
it not be that Blanchot’s silence (according to a certain historicist
view of his oeuvre that was also prevalent at the conference)
about the politics engaged in the 1930s is the key to understanding
his writing as an historical phenomenon? If we really look
carefully enough, in Jeffery Mehlman’s view, we can see that
the ‘silence’ is really symptomatic of a political engagement
that, from the first version of Thomas l’ Obscure onward, is
haunted by the myth of the sacrifice of Iphygenia for political
reasons, and is not really haunted (because of the problem for
writing that it poses) by the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.
Blanchot was presented as a writer (perhaps the writer) whose
view of human experience remains to be interpreted, understood,
rendered coherent at the immanent level of his thought. Not that
the responses were uninteresting. Far from it. A number of
speakers – particularly Ann-Marie Smock in a brilliant paper on
L’ Attente l’ oubli – showed that it is not simply at the level of
meaning where Blanchot’ s difficulty resides, but rather in the fact
that he confronts the very impossibility of meaning in his writing.
He is profoundly interested in the experience of the loss of
meaning as such. Similarly, it is not a matter of attempting to
ascertain what kind of reeit is in question, but of trying to
conceptulise the nature of a deit which is ‘about’ the
impossibility of the recit (La Folie du jour, for example). A
number of speakers drew attention to the fact that Blanchot’s
writing is littered with oxymorons – living death, the light of an
obscurity, black sun, the event of the non-event, the invisibility in
visibility – and with paradoxes: the step beyond as an affirmation
of the present, the day as the loss of the day, life as the impossibility of dying, the work (oeuvre) the absence of work
(desoeuvrement). Looked at from the perspective of a particular
kind of phenomenological logic, the rigour and imaginative
insight which was brought to the reading of Blanchot could only
be marvelled at. But is this really the best way to read him?
Broadly speaking, I would like to introduce a more Surrealist
Blanchot- a Blanchot who not only focuses, like Breton in Nadja,
on chance (hasard) , but who has absorbed anon-phenomenological
logic of chance. This line ofthinking is present in Blanchot’s own
critical writing. Indeed, some of the most penetrating articles
written on Breton and Surrealism have been written by Blanchot.
According to Blanchot, the key aspect of Breton’s Nadja is that it
exemplifies the impossibility of ever knowing whether or not the
encounter described really took place. What Breton is writing
‘about’, says Blanchot, is ‘chance as a sign’, the sign of the
unknown, the sign of the non-happening (inarrivee) of the encounter.
Any writing worthy of the name, Surrealism shows, is a
writing of surprise. Blanchot takes this to be the density of all
writing, which occurs at all times, and yet at an indeterminate
time. Once all this has been absorbed, it is no longer possible to
read Blanchot’s crucial text, Le Pas au-dela, in the same way. La
chance (luck) and le hasard (chance) suddenly leap out at the
reader – not to mention the notions of ‘irreversibility’ and’ indetermination’ – and, to be sure, the’ unpredictability’ of death.
Blanchot writes against ‘necessity’ and ‘for’ the game – one
of sober humour, perhaps, but the game is what gives chance its
very momentum. The game is thus the game of chance. What this
international conference succeeded in doing, such as few before
it have, was to open up another way in which Blanchot could be
read – that is to say, in which we could think (with) Blanchot.
Dear Radical Philosophy,
In his description of the CambridgeIDerrida affair (,Massacre of
the Innocents’ ,Radica IPhi!osophy 62, Autumn 1992), Mr Jonathan
Ree alleges that ‘the Cambridge philosophers’ organised a campaign to oppose the award of an honorary degree to Professor
Derrida for which he had been nominated by members of the
English Faculty. This is a very one-sided account of the affair. For
although Derrida was originally nominated by a Professor of
English, once the debate started, the award was strongly supported by some of ‘Cambridge’s official philosophers’ – for
example, Dr Susan James and I wrote one of the fly-sheets in
support of the award. Furthermore, although Professor Hugh
MelIor was one of the four members of the University whose’ Non
placet’ shout called the award of the degree into question, the
other three were members of the English Faculty. The fact is that
both the English Faculty and the Philosophy Faculty were divided
on this issue: the debate was not, as Mr Ree implies, between an
enlightened English department and a thoroughly reactionary
Philosophy department. Furthermore, although I share Mr Ree’ s
opinion concerning the poisonous letter to the Times from some
nineteen philosophers, I would at least excuse my colleagues here
from the charge he makes that they organised it. It was independently organised by the three expatriate Britons who signed it, who
are professors of philosophy at Liechtenstein, Geneva and Salzburg (Smith, Simons, Mulligan).
Mr Ree may find it hard to believe, but I (a Cambridge
philosopher) have lectured here on Derrida’s work, which has
figured prominently in the undergraduate philosophy syllabus.
Indeed, during the autumn term I ran a major course oflectures on
Derrida, which attracted large audiences, and culminated in a
successful visit by Derrida to the Philosophy Faculty itself.
Cambridge philosophers are not the narrow-minded positivist
bigots ofRee’s demonology, which is nearly as silly as the abuse
of Derrida’ s detractors. If, instead of confining himself to French
and German newspapers, he had been able to bring himself to look
at the British press he would have easily found the information his
article lacks – unless, that is, he just chose to suppress it for the
sake of a rather cheap jibe at the expense of people like myself
who worked hard for the award of the degree to Derrida.
Lecturer, Faculty of Philosophy, Clare College, Cambridge
Radical Philosophy 64, Summer 1993