Thursday, September 10, 2009

From Postmodernity to Aristotle

Here are some thoughts about what it means to live in postmodernity, taken from an essay I'm writing. I claim to identify three problems faced by "we postmoderns" which might motivate a return to the ancients, and especially to Aristotle. Thoughts?

The first problem of postmodernity that I would identify is the eclipse of the rule of law. Despite the resonance this might seem to have with a definitively liberal political discourse generated out of the Bush presidency, I am not referring to any empirical violation of the law, or even to the explicit Hobbesian argument that the chief executive is not bound by the law. Postmodernity is not marked by the return of extra-legal rule – tyranny or dictatorship – which was certainly a familiar-enough phenomenon during the reign of the modern consensus. Rather, to be postmodern is to suspect that the rule of law is, strictly speaking, nonsensical. The problem is conceptual, not empirical, as it were. The landmarks are not Guantanamo Bay and John Yoo, but Wittgenstein’s reductio ad absurdum of the notion of “applying” a rule, or Benjamin’s argument that all law is founded on and enforced by an essentially non-legal recourse to violence. The rule of law seems to be impossible to think, to be a sort of oxymoron. The universality of the law seems incommensurable with the singularity of the scene of its application. Hence, denizens of postmodernity feel the need for something like what Aristotle calls φρονησις, a sort of political wisdom or judgment that proceeds otherwise than by applying rules. This is the first call to return to Aristotle.

Moreover, postmodernity can also be characterized by the eclipse of the modern distinction between public and private. The division proposed by the liberal tradition, according to which the ends of action are private, while the means to those ends become public insofar as they impinge upon one another, seems to have lost its purchase. Again, the problem is not empirical; the liberal paradigm is founded upon diagnoses of and remedies for the empirical tendencies of the state to impose ends on its citizens and of those citizens to trespass on one another’s liberty. The postmodern problem arises when it seems that those very remedies only accelerate the tendencies they are supposed to check. We are forced, repeatedly, to choose between tendencies toward privatization and tendencies towards politicization that are equally merciless and asymptotically totalizing. The market increasingly subsumes not only the non-governmental institutions that are supposed to be the conservative bulwark of civil society – clubs, churches, families, universities – but even the very state functions – policing, soldiering, administering law, and even writing legislation – that are most central to public affairs. On the other hand, since everything seems to affect everyone (as revealed by the very cost-benefit analysis that articulates the calculative logic of privatization), everything seems to fall within the purview of administration and regulation by the state, or at least of political debate. Consequently, we postmoderns feel the need to rediscover some principle that would demarcate and harmonize the arenas of common being and private life. This is the second call to return to Aristotle.

Finally, postmodernity is marked by what I would call the eclipse of autonomy. Modernity was the era of the serene certainty that only those laws or norms were binding for a person which that person could be considered to have authored. We postmoderns, by contrast, experience a profound disquiet about the origin, force, and appropriateness of rules or norms, a disquiet that is not comforted by inquiring into whether we might ourselves have authored the rules and norms we obey. In fact, one lesson that could be drawn from the mid-to-late-20th century conjunction of a) rebellions against and flights from secular organizations of all kinds, and b) the metastatic growth of enthusiastic, fundamentalist, and evangelical churches of all stripes is this: the more we are told that we can, do, and/or should construct our own sets of rules or norms, the more oppressive and paralyzing such norms feel. We no longer trust ourselves with ruling ourselves. In this situation, the old questions – What is it to rule and to be ruled? Where do rules come from? Who should rule? – are questionable and interesting once again. This is the third call to return to Aristotle.