Saturday, July 14, 2012

Postmodern Political Ethics

Can major proponents of postmodernism and deconstruction help evaluate and guide contemporary political practices?  Can they help thinkers and practitioners recognize “universal” standards for decision-making and action in order to resolve the complex conflicts of interests of diverse groups in society, whether local or global?

Emeritus Professor Georges De Schrijver, S.J. offers a positive answer to both questions through his study, The Political Ethics of Jean-Francois Lyotard and Jacques Derrida, (ISBN 978-90-429-2327-0) published by Peeters in Leuven, Belgium in 2010.  In a painstaking way, De Schrijver shows the deep influence of Jewish culture on both thinkers and explains their philosophical roots, in the case of Lyotard, in Immanuel Kant’s notion of the Sublime as an elevating experience of the clash between mind and nature.
In the case of Derrida, De Schrijver expounds his roots in Friedrich Nietzsche’s perspectivism, Emmanuel Levinas’ metaphysics of the infinitely other, and Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology of presence, which Derrida deconstructs.

The universal standards described by Lyotard and Derrida have a utopian character such as the former’s “unpresentable” idea of “justice of multiplicity” and the latter’s “impossible” justice beyond legality.
Lyotard’s justice of multiplicity listens to, respects and defends the heterogeneous voices and languages, including “strange” ones, in all cultures, keeps them in creative tension, and seeks imaginative outcomes of the tension other than unity or consensus, which in modernity is a fabricated or coerced consensus.  In an expanded Kantian sense, such justice is sublime and “unpresentable,” and it is unimaginable when one remains within the established criteria and rules of decision-making and action of the modern nation-state.

Derrida’s impossible justice expresses the deep, enduring and indefinable desire to give to each person, in his or her particularity or uniqueness, what is due to him or her.  Such justice is impossible owing to the dependence of modern political authority on written laws and their universal or general categories to decide on what is just and unjust.  Furthermore, beneath layers of laws and their evolution, the ultimate foundation of authority is violent action and the threat of it, without which a legal system cannot be enforced.
Public intellectuals and leaders who will take up the challenge of examining and digesting the ideas of Lyotard and Derrida and their careful correlation in De Schrijver’s study will be amply rewarded.  At least, they will be reminded that cherished words in society like justice, democracy, equality, and freedom communicate contested and contestable ideas. 

Also, leaders and intellectuals will have to consider the assertion of postmodern political ethics that it is possible periodically in this age and the succeeding ages to find better perspectives in understanding cherished words so that public policies, programs and practices do not end up excluding, coercing or doing violence to any social or cultural group.

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