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63 Editorial

EDITORIAL

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One major preoccupation of recent critical debates has been
the attempt at a philosophical definition of the present
through an account of our relations to the Enlightenment.

Whether for or against ‘modernity’, contributors to these
debates have tended to identify modernity with the Enlightenment, and to make their respective philosophical stands
on this basis. Thus, it is the Enlightenment heritage of Kant
that Habermas and his supporters defend against post-war
French appropriations of a late nineteenth and early twentieth century German tradition of counter-Enlightenment.

While it is Habermas’ s maintenance of allegedly out -dated,
philosophically and politically discredited, ‘universal’ rational norms that is the object of his opponents’ derision.

Either way, for modernists, postmodernists and neo-conservatives alike, the Enlightenment has been the focal point
of a process of historical self-definition that has shaped the
terrain upon which a whole series of issues has come to be
discussed.

The contribution of recent feminist theory to this process
has been crucial. Taking up the post -Nietzschean critique of
Enlightenment reason as a narrow, one-sided, instrumental
form (with its freedoms based only in a series of inner and
outer oppressions), femin’ists have both extended this argument to include hitherto neglected areas of social life and
given existing variants a distinctively new, gendered dimension.

Underlying much of this work is a series of simple yet
powerful equations: between the Enlightenment as a historical phenomenon and as a philosophical principle, between this principle and the merely instrumental use of
reason, and between instrumental reason and masculinity.

In this way, a whole period of European history falls foul of
a decisive, indeed devastating, gender critique. Such theory
locates itself at the cutting edge of a modernist
postmodernism that would relegate the modernity of the
Enlightenment to the status of a patriarchal tradition, systematically and oppressively misrecognising itself as
emancipation.

But what, then, of the history of feminism itself during
t~is period, and its relations to contemporary feminist
critique? Must it too be dismissed as a patriarchal form? In
pursuit of an answer to this question, Pauline Johnson’s
essay in this issue sets out to dismantle the simplifications
underlying the postmodernist version of recent feminist
thought. The opposition of feminism to Enlightenment, she
argues, involves a misinterpretation of the Enlightenment,
Radical Philosophy 63, Spring 1993

both historically and philosophically. Reducing a dynamic
and continuing process of self-criticism to a set of fixed
principles, it prevents us from understanding both the
history and the current state of feminism. Illustrating her
argument with a comparison between Mary Astell’ s seventeenth century rationalist feminism and Mary
Wollstonecraft’s more radical, yet still deeply ambivalent,
late eighteenth century Enlightenment feminism, she interprets the feminist critique of Enlightenment as a part of
Enlightenment’s on-going self-development, rather than its
rejection.

*

Apart from Habermas, Foucault is probably the thinker
whose work has been most central to the debate over the
philosophical definition of the present, in a number of ways:

as a critical historian of institutions of Enlightenment (the
asylum, the prison, the factory, the barracks, the school); as
the theoretician of a ‘post-Enlightenment’ epistemology, in
his charting of the mutual imbrication of power and knowledge in successive ‘discursive formations’; and as the
promoter (alongside feminism) of a new emphasis on
questions of sexuality and the body in both epistemological
and political debates. In addition, several themes specific to
his later work have recently received renewed attention.

Most notably, there is his redefinition of Enlightenment as
a ‘philosophical ethos’ (a position with intriguing affinities
to the one outlined here by Johnson, demonstrating the
possibility of a rapprochement with the Habermasians), and
the reappearance in his writings of a broadly Kantian
concept of the self, developed in the context of a reexamination of Greco-Roman culture.

Central to any discussion of this ‘Return to the Subject
in Late Foucault’ (the title of an article by Peter Dews in
Radical Philosophy 51) is the issue of how it affects the
problems of normativity inherent in his earlier theory of
power. The article we publish here by Andrew Thacker
explores this question from the standpoint of the introduction into Foucault’s final work (The History o/Sexuality) of
the notion of an ‘aesthetics of existence’. Tracing the
‘semantic slipperiness’ of Foucault’ s use of the term ‘aesthetic’ , Thacker argues that it oscillates between two rather
different positions: the advocacy of some kind of positive
‘aestheticisation of everyday life’, in the manner of the
historical avant-garde, and a more cautious problematisation
of the role of the aesthetic in social life, that would provide
a standpoint for its utopian critique. In running the two

together in the context of his historical inquiries, it is
suggested, Foucault courts the danger of a merely backward-looking Utopianism.

*

If gender has replaced class as the focal point of much of the
literature that has been concerned to establish a critical
distance between the Enlightenment and the present, an
equally, if not more, powerful motive for such distancing is
to be found in the history of European colonialism. Yet here,
more than anywhere else, remembering that history, bringing it to light, and tracing its continuing effects within the
present, is an essential preliminary task.

Few books have been more successful in this regard, and
more productive in stimulating subsequent enquiry, than
Edward Said’s Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the
Orient, first published in 1978. Said’s work has been
exemplary, not only in its interdisciplinarity (at the crossroads of literature, politics and critical theory), but in
placing the cultural consequences of colonialism centrestage in any discussion about how literature works politically. Yet Said’s relationship to Enlightenment humanism
is far from being a dismissive one. Rather, as he insists in the
interview we publish here, for him humanism embodies
reserves of critical possibilities that must be preserved

against the retreat into reassertions of religious and ethnic
particularity. In a wide-ranging discussion that spans questions about the theoretical framework of Oriental ism, its
relation to feminism, poststructuralism and the debate about
the canon in the US academy, to Palestinian politics and the
Gulf War, Said outlines and defends his conception of what
it means to be a critical intellectual today.

*

There would seem to be no more chilling reminder of the
potential consequences of the reassertion of ethnic particularities than the horrendous, bloody conflicts that have
attended the break-up of the state of Yugoslavia. Yet the
concept of ethnic conflict at work here remains largely
unexamined. In what sense, precisely, are these specifically
‘ethnic’ conflicts – as opposed to disputes fueled by a
variety of social, political, and cultural contradictions? And
what has been the role of the so-called ‘international community’ in fostering such perceptions? In her contribution
to our Commentary section, Cornelia Sorabji raises these
questions with reference to the situation in Bosnia. Delineating the different factors that lie behind recent transformations of ‘Bosnian identities’, she lays bare some of the
complexities masked by the simple, and often self-serving,
talk about ‘ethnicity’ in the West.

Peter Osborne

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Radical Philosophy 63, Spring 1993

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