Academic journal article New Formations

Humanism and Cosmopolitanism after '68

Academic journal article New Formations

Humanism and Cosmopolitanism after '68

Article excerpt

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In this essay, I should like to offer some reflections on the implications of what I have called postmetaphysical humanism and situated cosmopolitanism for some of the themes highlighted in this special issue. (1) I hasten to add that any conception of humanism or of cosmopolitanism that will be politically viable at this juncture must be a critical conception. As it exhorts us to inclusiveness, to expand the circle of the 'we,' it must also have the resources to exclude those practices and social formations that thwart or undermine human flourishing. Accordingly, the conceptions of humanism and of cosmopolitanism that I develop emerge from what can be characterised as a critical-hermeneutic analysis and deployment of those ideas, an analysis and deployment offered as an explicit counter to currently influential discourses of modernity and postmodernity and, in particular, to those theoretical regimes perhaps most closely linked in our symbolic unconscious to the 'idea of '68.'

Prominent among the theoretical regimes associated with the 'idea of '68' are the philosophical movements known as poststructuralism and postmodernism. Poststructuralism can be characterised as the result of a radicalisation of Ferdinand de Saussure's structuralist insight that linguistic or symbolic meaning is determined by the context or by the field of differences in which a semiotic token plays a role. Poststructuralists aver that such contexts always lack closure, that they are porous and unstable, that the relevant field of differences is never given once and for all. They thus maintain that meaning itself is indefinitely deferred, that it is never definitively given. The destabilisation of systems of difference demands the suspension of interpretive closure, of determinate interpretation. The related movement of postmodernism regards with incredulity any privileging of a context-transcendent framework from which judgments can be issued or definitive meanings ascertained. It regards with suspicion any metaphysical or transcontextual certainties, any claims to have discerned objective essences or common matrices that would guarantee neutral or objective thought. Neither self, as subject, nor world, as object, can be said to have any privileged essential being.

The names of few philosophers are as resonant with the 'idea of 1968' as is Michel Foucault's. It was he who perhaps most starkly proclaimed the 'death of man' thesis, though it was Althusser who first used the term 'anti-humanism' in this context (and Althusser admits to the influence of Heidegger's 'Letter on Humanism' on his antihumanism (2)). Moreover, Foucault's emphasis upon the heterogeneity and incommensurability of subjects produced by differential regimes of power/knowledge made his writing uniquely influential in providing theoretical grounding for identity politics in the US. (3) (As I shall suggest later in this essay, as I write in June 2008, the response to the candidacy of Barack Obama for the US presidency can be interpreted to be, at least in part, reflective of a self-conscious grappling with the legacy of the politics of identity among progressive actors.)

If Foucault was and, to some extent, remains emblematic of the 'thinkers of '68' in the US, there were political philosophers on the French scene who were vigorously challenging his brand of anti-humanist poststructuralism by the time of his death in 1984. In their attempts to reconstruct humanism in the wake of the postmodernist critique of subjectivity, the project of Luc Ferry and Alain Renaut is especially noteworthy. (4) Like Jurgen Habermas, they are committed to an internal critique of modernity, rejecting Heidegger's anti-modernism, Foucault's postmodernism and Theodor Adorno's 'negative dialectics'. (5) However, in their strongly anti-structuralist tendency to suggest that the rejection or transcendence of conventions or social codes by itself gives sufficient content to humanism, they fail to do justice to the ways in which we are always already encoded, to the extent to which that encoding is an enabling and not only a privative condition. …

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