Aesthetics of Self-Fashioning and Cosmopolitanism: Foucault and Rorty on the Art of Living

By Abrams, Jerold J. | Philosophy Today, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Aesthetics of Self-Fashioning and Cosmopolitanism: Foucault and Rorty on the Art of Living


Abrams, Jerold J., Philosophy Today


Today several philosophers have begun to develop a positive ethics of self-fashioning, which is non-universalist, aestheticist, and very influenced by Nietzsche. Philosophers who have championed this aesthetic ethics of self-fashioning include Michel Foucault, Richard Shusterman, Alexander Nehamas, Stanley Cavell, and Richard Rorty. Another group of philosophers has focused alternatively on the problems of globalized justice, the importance of spreading democracy, globalized cosmopolitanism, communicative deliberation in the public sphere, and critical approaches to unjust background conditions. These thinkers include John Rawls, Jurgen Habermas, Karl-Otto Apel, Martha Nussbaum, and, again, Richard Rorty. This second group finds the first group to be highly problematic, because its ethics is elitist, not at all democratic. Rather than focus on what universal humanity requires, they focus on "the art of living," "perfectionist techniques of self-enhancement," "aestheticist practices in the arts of narrative self-writing," and so on-and the poor of India do not factor in to that discussion. They do so unabashedly, with no apologies, and find their aestheticism to be a natural outcome of the very democracy the cosmopolitans have helped to champion and bring about. Can these two groups, self-fashioners and cosmopolitans, be reconciled? Rorty, who fits into both groups, thinks they can be reconciled only minimally, and makes a strong division, the strongest in fact in his entire philosophical oeuvre, between the private sphere and the public sphere: that is, he relegates the self-fashioners to the private sphere, and democratic philosophers to the public sphere, with nothing whatever to discuss. The present discussion, however, argues that the two groups are much closer together, much more intrinsically intertwined than that, and that the charge of elitism may be at least partially defused.

In order to understand this split, and how it may be reconciled, it is first necessary to understand something about the twentieth century split between modernity and postmodernity. These terms help to mark the philosophical terrain of the latter half of the twentieth century, and still continue to exert their influence today. Modems hold that even after Nietzsche, reason, while hardly pure, still has emancipatory content, still is the only path to freedom and equality, and still provides the only lighthouse in a spreading fog of nihilism. They continue to elevate Kant as the central figure of philosophy, and advance the idea of a globalized democracy as the ultimate telos of history, a final Kingdom of Ends in which ideals of freedom and equality reign supreme. This movement continues to find strong advocates in Apel and Habermas, who have also mounted the strongest critique of postmodernism.1

In contrast to modems, postmoderns have significantly less hope for reason, reject projects of grounding, justification, and emancipation, and turn a skeptical eye toward the goal of a total world state of the kind Kant imagined. Ever since Nietzsche, "reason" has been unmasked as strategic and power-- laden, an instrument of colonization and social distortion, only manipulating a self-image of "emancipatory" and "just" so as to make its distortions more subversive and efficient. Once peeled back, however, a more pluralistic and culturally creative layer comes to the surface: now each culture, and each individual, rather than on-the-way to Enlightenment, is viewed by the postmoderns as narrativally embedded, and normatively self-contained. Moreover, with no ethical view from nowhere for discerning ethical universals, no single cultural narrative-particularly the Enlightenment-has a right to assume pride of place over the others; none, that is, has any right to become a "metanarrative," to use Jean Frangois Lyotard's term. In fact, it was Lyotard who, as spokesman for postmodernity, defined the postmodern condition as precisely this death of belief in metanarratives, and a general skepticism toward the very idea of political universalism.

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