A Wearable Postmodernism

Foucault and Social Dialogue - Beyond Fragmentation
Christopher Falzon
London and New York: Routledge, 1998

Reviewed by
Winifred Wing Han Lamb

The question of the death of the subject or the 'death of Man' has been the subject of intense discussion and debate. These have often taken the form of interminable disputes between rationalism and relativism, foundationalism and fragmentation. But increasingly, the idea that these are the only alternatives open to us has been questioned. The author is one who believes that we can and should go beyond these standard oppositions.

What precisely is involved in 'the death of Man'? Falzon says that in the first instance it involves scepticism concerning the notion of a transcendental self and a timeless human nature which can provide an ultimate foundation for thought and action. Above all, it is scepticism about the existence of 'any universal, permanent, ahistorical standpoint, framework or essence to which we can ultimately appeal'. (p. 1) Associated with it is a questioning of the traditional role of philosophy to affirm the existence of these ultimate foundations. Falzon calls this foundationalist approach 'metaphysical thinking'. (p. 2)

In the contemporary context of scepticism about foundationalism is the claim that if we reject metaphysics (i.e. any absolute, overarching, unifying standpoint) we will be faced with the fragmentation of thought and action into so many incommensurable world-views, forms of life and cultural practices. Some have greeted this 'fragmentation' positively, as something to celebrate since it brings to an end the long suppression of otherness and heterogeneity. Others have viewed it negatively, as representing the kind of intellectual and moral chaos in which 'anything goes' and in which we are left with nothing more than uncritical relativism. Falzon rejects both of these positions, the first is a brand of postmodernism which, out of distrust for all totalising discourses, embraces 'fragmentation' to celebrate difference and heterogeneity, and the second is a position which responds to the possible danger of chaos by seeking to reaffirm some sort of transcendental ground or foundation. Falzon gives Habermas as an example of someone with this latter perspective and he discusses his position at some length.

Falzon says that both totalising metaphysics and the fragmentation vision continue the essentially metaphysical idea that it is possible to have a complete, all-embracing world view. This presupposes that the world is there for us to mould to our wishes. In actual fact, and this is central to Falzon's notion of 'dialogue', the world is intractable , and always resists and exceeds our grasp. In our experience of ordering the world, we inevitably come up against, 'that which eludes our categories and which is able to affect and shape us in turn'.(p.4) In other words, we inevitably engage in a 'dialogue' with it. 'Dialogue', as understood by Falzon, thus arises out of the otherness of the world as well as our attempt to understand it and order it, and as a result of this, there is constant and reciprocal play. However, dialogue is arrested when the order we impose becomes 'domination' which is the kind of order that seeks to overcome otherness. 'Domination is the radical negation of dialogue'. (p.5)

The dialogical picture that Falzon gives us draws substantially on the work of Michel Foucault since a 'careful reading of his works...' shows that dialogue, while not explicit is central to his ideas. The idea of dialogue is, in fact, the driving force behind Foucault's work and this is shown in his picture of our involvement as human beings 'in an open- ended "agonistic" dialogue of forces' out of which 'forms of social order and entrapment merge.... themselves destined to be overcome in the course of ongoing dialogue'.(p. 6) Such a picture of the world has implications for ethics and of a social critique that is genuinely 'post-modern' in the sense that it is based, not on a foundationalist approach but on the fact, of the intractability of the world, our attempts to order it, and our resistance to order when it becomes a form of domination. Dialogue is not a normative notion for Falzon but 'a fact of life' since we are 'inevitably, inescapably, caught up in dialogue'. (p.6) Yet it is in this context that ethics must be understood, as an instrument for facilitating further dialogue.

There are layers of meaning at play in Faizon' s picture of social dialogue. First, 'dialogue' is used descriptively of the world, to capture the Foucauldian picture of the interplay of corporeal forces, indeed the 'agonism, the ongoing, open-ended combat of competing positions in social life, in which all positions are finite and partial' and in which 'none can prevail absolutely.' (88) Yet, at another level, dialogue involves choice, i.e. choosing to recognise this fact about the world and then choosing also an attitude of openness towards the other. This deliberate choice, as Falzon acknowledges, amounts to an ethical stance which has political implications since it assists contemporary forms of resistance. Underlying these two senses of dialogue are two different stances and two different attitudes, one is acceptance and the other hope. Both are present in Falzon' s account of social dialogue in the postmodern world, for it is not a view from nowhere and the human dimension, as well as human emotions are fully recognised. Accordingly, Falzon addresses the possibility of a profound sense of loss in the abandonment of metaphysics in our time in the face of which he recommends not pessimism, or a sense of absurdity, nor indeed, it seems an irresponsible celebration of fragmentation, but instead, a positive acceptance - i.e. the acceptance that 'our mundane, transitory, historical world is the only one there is.' (10) While this position involves the rejection of all 'metaphysical comforts', Falzon says that it also gives us 'the restoration of what is human and what is worldly'. (11)

One is therefore offered a postmodernism that is positive. This is not the place to look at Falzon' s discussion of Habermas' claim that the decisive rejection of ultimate principles can only result in the fragmentation of thought and action into a multiplicity of uncommunicating, incommensurable monads, of Foucault's view of the role of the intellectual, or of whether a Foucauldian intellectual can genuinely critique the status quo, all of which are discussed in the book. Instead, a central question that arises and that Falzon also implicitly and fruitfully addresses is the ethical and human question of how we live with the loss of metaphysics. Is the loss too profound? Are we left with absurdity? What is it to live responsibly? Can postmodernism give us hope?

These are all questions of theological importance. Falzon's this-worldly, corporeal account of the world, unlike the 'superficial postmodernism' that he rightly rejects, offers a way forward. His is a kind of 'transcendence without transcending', a phrase that has been used to describe the humanist Marxist, Ernst Bloch's philosophy of the world as an open materiality that is transformed by human hope. Bloch's is a utopian vision of history}he openness of which rests in ontological openness and in the human capacity to protest against the present. The human capacity to hope is thus described as the most human of all emotions that serves as the 'motor of history' since it unveils possibility and ushers in the new. It is an easy thing for the reader to substitute Falzon's notion of 'transgressive creativity' for hope, and Bloch's open materiality for 'the corporeal dialogue of forces.' The author may shrink back from the suggestion of such a strong expression of utopianism in his work, but his vision is nevertheless carried by such a spirit. This is conveyed by recurring words and phrases like, 'creativity', 'play', 'permanent possibility', 'the breath of life to history', 'the irrepressible human talent for creative transgression' and of course, 'dialogue'. Bloch summed up his philosophy as 'S is not yet P, to express the openness of things, and the permanent possibilities in the world. This is almost echoed in the vision that is described in Falzon, of 'permanent possibility, the permanent possibility of the iruption of the other, the new and unexpected, at the margins of our existence.' (56) What Faizon says of the human refusal to 'remain confined within existing limits' and 'the ever-irrepressible human talent for creative transgression which both continually gives rise to new historical forms and makes possible their transformation....' (56) could equally be applied to what Bloch said about the capacity of human hope to rupture and transform history.

Important theological questions that are raised by Falzon's account include the question of whether all metaphysical, in the sense of overarching and transcendental, accounts are necessarily totalising leading to closure and the end of dialogue, or the question of whether the implications of human finitude may not be properly appreciated by those who live with religious and transcendental narratives. It may, in fact, be rather too simple to think of these as mutually exclusive and this is what Falzon appears to claim. However, this does not detract from an undeniably valuable aspect of his account. That is, Falzon introduces a human dimension which is often lacking in the writings of postmodernist philosophers. This is the dimension of care which goes beyond the level of the intellectual and the academic to a concern with the important, indeed, also Kantian, questions of 'what ought I to do?' and 'what can we hope for?' While Falzon recommends that we leave behind a foundationalist metaphysics which avoids and denies our finitude and our humanness, he is well aware of an ontic dimension of belief, for what he then proposes is a non-foundationalist, yet responsible and liveable postmodernism.

In this connection, the end of metaphysics does not mean the end of ethics or even the importance of virtues. In addressing the question of how shall we live with the death of Man, Falzon enlists and affirms the importance of virtues like respect, courage, maturity, and creativity. Above all, creativitiy, since in choosing to adopt the posture of dialogue, 'transgressive creativity' is all important if the end is open dialogue and social transformation in the postmodern world.

This book is a creative interpretation of Foucault' s picture of the world as an 'open-ended interplay of corporeal forces'. The author re-casts the picture in at least two ways that are significant and important. Firstly, it is set in context, backgrounded by the history of philosophy and this allows for more fruitful engagement with Falzon's thesis. Secondly, Falzon's account looks forward to a postmodernism that is not as hopelessly fragmented but that is an alternative vision of the world which could even offer hope, and a new way of being. This is a liveable, wearable postmodernism and written as it is in an accessible and luminously clear way, it serves to dispel the charge from some quarters that postmodernist philosophy is nothing more than pretentious 'imposturing'.

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