Entangled in Stories: Inwardness, Politics, Conflict and Their Non-Essentialist Treatment

By Papastephanou, Marianna | Philosophy Today, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

Entangled in Stories: Inwardness, Politics, Conflict and Their Non-Essentialist Treatment


Papastephanou, Marianna, Philosophy Today


Ideals of reconciliation are treated by most contemporary philosophical discourses as bankrupt and chimeric or even as suspect of totalitarianism and terror. Largely associated with eschatological narratives of a supposedly prospective undifferentiated social unity, such ideals are charged with a violent revocation of singularity and heterogeneity for the sake of totality and homogeneity. Hence postmodernist critiques of utopianism are by now well-worn and widely accepted dimension of a broader incredulity toward meta-narratives.

However, I argue that the sedimentation of those critiques in a polemics that exaggerates the significance that conflict and radical difference may have for justice, has led to extreme positions. Even the mention of the term "consensus" suffices to trigger postmodernist or poststructuralist attacks on grounds of foundationalism, universalism, totalitarianism, and pacification regardless of how the term is reformulated or meant. Attacks of that sort are justified only to a very limited extent as reactions to a growing tendency in applied politics to consider agreement the ultimate answer to world problems, thus hypocritically glossing over issues of power and uneven positioning of the parties expected to agree. But such attacks are not justified when they tend to treat the notion of agreement or consensus as necessarily derivative from foundationalism and conservative universalism.

Conversely, dissent and conflict may generate fresh outlooks and just stances to unassimilated alterity but in their inflated and non-nuanced form they may work against peaceful coexistence or the very acceptance and appreciation of otherness. When dissent and conflict signify a commitment to critique and wield new and as yet unknown ideas they may take the form of controversy. But in their exaggerated emphasis they may lead to a sterile or even violent negativity; too many expectations from the inflated tropes of dissent and conflict reify them and blunt their critique of stasis. Thought through, in the end, what is thus accomplished is an affirmation of the modernist assumption of an essentially polemic humanity always motivated by a narrow conception of private interest blocking possibilities for genuine concern for the other. A proneness to antagonism (either intrinsic to politics understood as social coordination of individual interest-never stable and always varying-or intrinsic to anthropology understood as biological preprogramming of the self toward closure) functions as the ultimate justification of radical human division.

Contra an unqualified celebration of polemics such as the one we often encounter in postmodern discourse, I argue that identity and alterity within humankind need not be separated by impermeable boundaries, political or onto-anthropological. When present and felt, obstacles to reconciliation of the I and the Other can be unveiled as contingent and surmountable, especially since the constitution of the I and the Other is itself a mutable and unpredictable process. However, there has been a variety of essentialist approaches to conflict treating it as just one of the many manifestations of an inescapable authoritarian ontology. Even moves that have been otherwise characterized as anti-essentialist, since they have targeted particular versions of foundationalism, appear reluctant to break with conflict's alleged transcendence.

The kind of essentialism that interprets contingent obstacles as ahistorical anthropological limits of cultural hospitability functions as the ultimate justification of the existence of those obstacles and the vehicle of their consolidation in the sphere of political practice. If human beings are essentially closed unities, competing with one another materially and symbolically for their survival and power respectively, any attempt at crossing some such onto-anthropological boundaries appears either a futile task or, at best, a short-term compromise. …

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