Postmodernism succumbs to a friendly takeover
Saturday, August 02, 2003
One surprising consequence of the war in Iraq is the surrender of postmodernism to a victorious modernism. This has been largely overlooked in North America.
In reaction to the U.S. intervention in Iraq, Jacques Derrida, a famous postmodernist, signed on as co-author of an article drafted by the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, previously an opponent of his, in an unmistakable endorsement of modernist Enlightenment principles. Derrida, the apostle of deconstructionism, is now advocating some decidedly constructive and Eurocentric activism.
The article appeared simultaneously in two newspapers on May 31, in German in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung as "After the War: The Rebirth of Europe," and in French in Libération, less triumphantly, as "A Plea for a Common Foreign Policy: The demonstrations of Feb. 15 against the war in Iraq designed a new European public space."
Other famous intellectuals joined in with supportive newspaper articles of their own: Umberto Eco (of The Name of the Rose) and Gianni Vattimo in Italy and an American philosopher, Richard Rorty. This provoked much discussion in Europe, but only a few comments so far in North America, the Boston Globe and the Village Voice being rare exceptions.
This week in Montreal, there was an anti-globalization riot in which windows were broken in protest against a World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting. But the Habermas-Derrida declaration praises the WTO and even the International Monetary Fund as part of Weltinnenpolitik: maddeningly hard to translate, but something like "global domestic policy" or "external internal policy."
Yet it is not much of a stretch to claim the young anti-globalists as disciples of postmodernism and Derrida, who has hitherto been a foe of "logocentrism" (putting reason at the centre), "phallologocentrism" (reason is an erect male organ and, as such, damnably central) and Eurocentrism (the old, old West is the homeland of all of the above).
Derrida added a note to the article, observing most people would recognize Habermas's style and thinking in the piece, and that he hadn't had time to write a separate piece. But notwithstanding his "past confrontations" with Habermas (Derrida had objected to being called a "Judaistic mystic," for one thing), he agreed with the article he had signed, which calls for new European responsibilities "beyond all Eurocentrism" and the strengthening of international law and international institutions.
He hints some dissent with the words "although not in a sense that refers to the Kantian tradition" (Kant wrote in favour of global citizenship and perpetual peace on rationalist grounds) and directs us on to his book of last year, Hoodlum: Two Essays on Reason (my lame translation of the title, which misses the apparent play on the resemblance between the French words for "see" and "thug"), but also to a University of Chicago Press book of this year, which combines interviews with himself and Habermas in which they likewise converge: Philosophy in a Time of Terror, by Giovanna Borradori. For one thing, they both dislike the very concept of terrorism.
The grand modernist-postmodernist coalition is, then, the result of a friendly takeover, in which Derrida remains the CEO of a substantial minority interest.
Habermas is the chief heir of the Frankfurt school, a peculiar but greatly admired Marxist tradition, which included T.W. Adorno (Habermas's teacher). In this article, Habermas does allude in passing to Adorno's own critique of the Enlightenment, which was much less extreme than Derrida's.
In the past few decades, Habermas's politics can hardly be distinguished from those of any other constitutionalist, liberal social-democrat. He is no longer a 1960s radical, and he has taken in major public controversies about German history as the leading voice of conventional, respectable thought.
After all, Marxism is a rationalist or would-be-rational, modernizing ideology, in spite of some murky, interesting origins in the depths of German philosophy.
The most specific point of the joint article is that there should be a European foreign minister with real teeth, who could, for example, control such mavericks as Tony Blair and José Maria Aznar, the Prime Minister of Spain, whose support for the United States is singled out as scandalous in Habermas-Derrida's lead sentence.
Joschka Fischer, the Green German Foreign Minister (once a very radical '60s radical), is widely believed to want that job. Habermas and Derrida allude to this, saying "even Fischer" with a new title but no new powers would be ineffectual.
For all Habermas's sober, thoughtful dullness (in contrast to Derrida's customary witty, even frivolous opaqueness -- national stereotypes are sometimes true), there are some harsh passages. The second paragraph speaks of the "leaden months" leading up to the Iraq war, in which there was a "morally obscene division of labour" between the unstoppable U.S. machine and the "febrile" busy-ness of humanitarian NGOs, working together like gear wheels. The war is called a "boisterous" (in German) or (in French) an "impudent" breach of international law.
Further on, Europe is presented as a model of secularism: "In our latitudes, it would be hard to imagine a president who begins his daily official duties with a public prayer and links his important political decisions with a divine mission."
In other words, "Take that, George W. Bush! You're no Thomas Jefferson! Our wall of separation between church and state is bigger than yours!"
Habermas-Derrida express this Euro-secularism as a "neutrality toward world-views" (Weltanschauungen), thus going beyond neutrality toward different religions.
On the other hand, they are explicitly working toward a new, constructed European identity, which must surely be some kind of world-view. They are offering Europe as a preliminary sketch for a future world government, as does the draft European constitution advanced by Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, the former President of France.
Only in a united cosmopolis, in which the distinction between foreign and domestic politics would be obsolete, could Weltinnenpolitik -- a global interior policy -- make any sense.