Postmodernism, particularly in the form of "deconstruction," has been targeted for criticism by a number of CSR authors (see CSR XVI:4, XVII:4, XIX:4), but has also been defended on occasion (see XIX:4). In this essay Gary John Percesepe weighs in on the affirmative side; he chides his fellow Christian scholars for condemning deconstructionists such as Derrida without having bothered to read them, and reminds us that "friends are found in the most unlikely places." Mr. Percesepe teaches philosophy at Cedarville College.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being Postmodern
By Gary John Percesepe
What is the end of postmodernism? Must it end in nihilism, tragedy, and death, fulfilling the darkest fears of its critics? What is the postmodern, that it should end in death and despair, or have an end at all? What is the meaning of its end, or of any end at all? What sense can we make of the untimely end of a postmodern thinker? How helpful is it to conflate the end of an individual life with the philosophical future of a pathway of thought? What ends can a paper on the postmodern hope to serve – if indeed hope can be put in a postmodern voice?
This paper is quite literally the result of a suicide. It is written as a response to a grieving Gary Comstock, who mourns the tragic suicide of a postmodern colleague in the philosophy department of a Midwestern university. In a compelling article recently published in Faith and Philosophy, Comstock suggests that by destroying the possibility of agreed upon rules for dialogue concerning the good, the true, and the beautiful, taking postmodernism seriously ends in nihilism, political quietism, and death. Postmodern incredulity towards metanarratives, he argues, ironically leads to the end of the possibility of dialogue, rather than (as Richard Rorty supposes) a continuation of the conversation. In support of his position, Comstock offers a narrative of his own: the story of his colleague "Doug" and Doug's postmodern (suicidal) end.
I offer this paper as a way of insisting that philosophy (especially postmodern philosophy) must relentlessly situate itself at the site of life and death -- at the end of philosophy -- but that such a weighty matter requires a light touch. Modernity, with its metaphors of depth, foundation, weight, suspicion, and high seriousness has generated its own resistance in the form of a postmodern yearning for surface, lightness, and release from weight. In response to Comstock's story I offer Milan Kundera's story of Tomas in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, with a plea that Doug not be turned into kitsch. My intent throughout is to show that Comstock, in an uncanny way, gives voice to the darkest fears and misconceptions about the postmodern -- fears and misconceptions that are shared by many in the philosophic and religious communities.1 I do not claim to have addressed exhaustively the entire constellation of concerns that has recently grouped itself under the problematic term postmodernism. More modestly, against the backdrop of Kundera's remarkable novel and Doug's tragic death I attempt to make space for the splendid lightness of postmodern philosophic and religious discourse as a resistance to the weight of modernity, and a way to keep hope alive in a world of suspicion.
It is my belief that Gary Comstock in his article, "Is Postmodern Religious Dialogue: Possible?"2 ironically answers his title's question in the affirmative by enacting a postmodern interrogation of the Christian metanarrative in connection with the tragic death of his colleague “Doug." I intend to show that Comstock's indecisiveness about his relation to the postmodern3 effects an interior dialogue (pitting Comstock vs. Comstock in the final footnote) and a plea for public dialogue that is compelling but ultimately misleading, recycling common misunderstandings that deserve to be put to rest. However, the questions Comstock raises in his article (some in connection with my name) are not insignificant and do call for a response.
The profound sadness of a friend's suicide leads Gary Comstock to wonder whether taking postmodernism seriously ends in death.4 My response: Not any more than modernism, high modernism, or any other adjectival, historical or theoretical naming ends in death.5 What are the modern or the postmodern that they should end in death, or end at all? What is the meaning of their end, or of any end at all? What is to prevent the postmodern from ending, after all, in modernity?6 The essential connection between the modern and the post modern (ignored by Comstock's paper, scrutinized brilliantly by Jurgen Habermas in "The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity”) is emphatically affirmed by Jean-Francois Lyotard in the Appendix to the slender volume that precipitated much of the current debate, The Postmodern Condition. In this Appendix, appropriately titled "What is Postmodernism," Lyotard has this to say:
What then, is the postmodern? What place does it or does it not occupy in the vertiginous work of the questions hurled at the rules of image and narration? It is undoubtably part of the modern. All that has been received, if only yesterday (modo, modo, Petronius used to say), must be suspected... In an amazing acceleration the generations precipitate themselves. A work can become modern only if it is first postmodern. Postmodernism thus understood is not modernism at its end but in the nascent state, and this state is constant.7
The modern and the postmodern are unthinkable apart from each other, each miming the moves of the other in an undecidable order of first and last, beginning and end. The modern has needed the postmodern, turning towards it with an instinct-like propensity in order to reveal its own lack of foundation and offering itself as host. Yet without the modern the postmodern could not be envisioned, even as a transposition in power relations has made the modern parasitical upon the postmodern. This strange quirk of history accounts for Comstock's indecisiveness in the face of the postmodern; but such indecisiveness is not necessary, should not therefore be valorized. To be or not to be postmodern is no longer the question, Lyotard seems to be saying to us, for we postmoderns -- but who, we?
A careful reading of Comstock's paper reveals that he has difficulty deciding whether he wishes to be known as a "postmodern." Although he calls himself in one place "a self-respecting postmodernist," he makes it clear that he is critical of postmodernism on at least two grounds: 1) Postmodernism seems to suspend the rules of philosophy (and theology), questioning the credulity of all metanarratives targeted on truth, goodness, and beauty; 2) This suspension of rules is destructive of dialogue, leading to death (of the conversation, of Doug). As Comstock puts it, "Without some rough rules-perhaps even meta narratives like the true, the good, and the beautiful, I do not see what reason we would have to go on talking." Yet the final footnote to his paper seems to embrace postmodern suspicion of any such "a priori principles," calling for "new ways" to go on conversing together; even going so far as to suggest the introduction of "new voices" into his own project which he claims "signal his discomfort" with his own position.
Comstock's self-reflexive indecisiveness about his relation to the postmodern is strikingly introduced on the first page of his paper and is transmitted to the reader via the recurrent usage of the public pronoun "we" -- whether the we of modernity or the we of postmodernity "we" cannot say. It is as if, being confused himself, he wishes to implicate us all in this strategic undecidability, speaking in our voice as well as his own as the perspective of the we shifts from the modern to the postmodern and back, like silent gears in a clock whose face cannot be read. It is as if we (clearly now an undecidable pronoun) are always too late to decode our work; or, what amounts to the same thing, our work always begins too soon to "place," leaving us uncomfortably between the times. This being the case, can our "dialogue" (surely the most wistful term in the late twentieth century) be otherwise? Modern to postmodern, postmodern to modern, we speak too soon and too late, as both discourses conflate in a future (post) anterior (modo) alert to its poverty of tense. Comstock is everyperson, the we-for-all, post modern to modern, uneasy with it all, a victim of the excess of time.
And what of the good, the true, and the beautiful, what are their modern/postmodern ends? Permit me to use Comstock's large question as a perch to view the "marks of the postmodern." The context shall be the dialogues of Plato.
If the method of Plato was dialectic, its use was the critical articulation of the good, the true, and the beautiful (not to be automatically equated with goodness, truth, and beauty -- gone the process!). Plato's dialogues proved to be highly conducive to dialectical reasoning, which may be understood as the art of disciplined conversation. As Socrates practiced the method, the asking of the initial question8 would elicit intense self-examination as each member of the group was challenged to ponder the reasons behind a given response, and gently prodded to relinquish any position found to be ground-less (i.e., without foundation), or contrary to reason. No one was allowed to "philosophize from on high" -- that is, appeals to authority, tradition, or social convention were rejected as inadequate in themselves. For Socrates and his dialogical companions, the only sure foundation9 of knowledge was that which could withstand relentless criticism; thus, they boldly followed the question wherever it led. As the leader of the conversation (the "man of reason"10), Socrates played the role of the gadfly, stinging and cajoling his companions until became clear that the "first offerings" of positions were confused ideas, unclear and untrue. Undaunted, Socrates and his partners would begin again, perpetual philosophical beginners, building on the new knowledge of their own ignorance time and time again until gradually it appeared that their community-corrected conversation began to converge on the true. Still, many of the dialogues end inconclusively as Plato ceased writing and turned the conversation over to us.
The greatest obstacles to the success of this methodology were intellectual conceit and uncritical dogmatism. It appears that one of Socrates' objectives for dialectic was to draw out the inconsistencies, errors, and absurdities of a person's original confident assertions about justice, beauty, piety, or whatever topic was under discussion. Hidden assumptions and prejudices were to be held up to the light of reason and interrogated on the grounds that one is not intellectually free so long as one clings to uncritical assumptions.ll The aim was to demonstrate the need for justifying one's assertions through sustained argument; logic is a machine for evaluating and de-legitimizing arguments found to be without warrant. Any claim put forward without evidence is viewed as groundless, a mere assertion, a free-floating sentence detached from any support. As Socrates repeatedly showed, anything that is arbitrarily asserted can be rationally questioned or denied. Socrates' relentless questioning was designed to demonstrate to his companions (and to himself) the poverty of their thought. Whereas they had thought they were rich in knowledge the dialectical conversation had revealed them to be poor indeed. Once humility had been established, the serious task of establishing rational grounds for belief could begin again, energized by a genuine sense of intellectual need and driven by insistent demands for better arguments, more thoughtful analysis, and more critical self-examination. Taking this method seriously requires that nothing shall be left unquestioned, least of all we ourselves. As Socrates would put it, "The unexamined life is not worth living."
Pausing for a moment in this edifying discourse, the marks of the postmodern can be seen, for the Platonic dialogues were not self-grounding at all. They indeed had a foundation, but one with a false bottom, for the foundation harbored fateful assumptions about reality, and what founded such a foundation? (Who guards the guardians?).
In actuality, questions about the foundation were modern questions long before it became fashionable to call them postmodern. (How odd that the modern question of foundation should have to become reborn in postmodern garb so as to be disclosed as modern, even ancient) We did not need to wait for Lyotard or Derrida, Nietzsche or Foucault, for as early as Descartes the foundation was being put in question, a dialogue that continued through Hegel, who could still see the value of prefacing the Science of Logic with the foundationalist query, "With What Must the Science Begin?" The youthful Marx, inheriting both the method of dialectic -- as well as a concern for foundations, once wrote a remarkable letter to his friend Arnold Ruge in which he dedicated himself to "A Ruthless Criticism of Everything Existing."12 One smiles to see such a title today, recalling the failure of the Husserlian project of a pure and rigorous science, free from prejudice and assumption, free-standing and foundational to all the special sciences. This phenomenological project, with its dreamy foundationalism, is thought by Husserl to be the antidote to the crisis of the European Sciences.13 Husserl doggedly reminds us that phenomenology is in the spirit of early Greek philosophy, as yet an unrealized project, and he is correct on both counts. But the Husserlian project breaks apart on the realization that not everything will be criticized, for the best of us have certain "blind spots," immune from criticism, insensibly guarded and protected in order to further our designs. Thus, although Marx could see clearly enough to criticize the masking of self-interest that makes religion both possible and necessary in the service of the ruling class, he was blind to the ways his own increasingly positivistic critique could be criticized. Husserl's stubborn defense of the Transcendental Ego leads him into a series of false starts that ultimately requires the valorization of the subject, a morass that gave an entire generation of phenomenologists full employment. It is worth noting (under the rubric of "the end") that Marx's failure in the end gave us the genius of Jurgen Habermas, while the failure of Husserl (and Heidegger) produce Derrida; Habermas and Derrida, speaking from both sides of the outcome, in different voices.14 And the conversation, far from dying, has continued...
Heidegger, Gadamer, and Ricoeur, moderns all, have reminded us that every philosophy is laden with certain "fateful prejudices," which militate against the very ideals of objectivity and self-criticism they claim to embrace. These voices are jined by that of William Alston from a different tradition, who nevertheless underscores the impossibility of constructing a non-circular epistemology; and Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff, whose anti-foundationalism has helped to redirect the philosophy of religion in our day. It appears that the hope of a self-grounding philosophy has crashed and burned, and every attempt to propagate one today is greeted with suspicion. This is the postmodern condition.
It is also therefore the modern condition. Paul Ricoeur, in his pathbreaking 'Freud and Philosophy,16 called Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud the "masters of suspicion," and so they are. More recently Merold Westphal has put Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud in the service of religion, unleashing the power of their suspicion-generated critiques to reveal our idolatrous religious intentions. Appropriating Ricoeur's analysis in an imaginative way, Westphal suggests that Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud are God's prophetic voices for the twentieth century and that suspicion is the hermeneutics of Lent.17 The only antidote to the masking of self-interest, Ricoeur and Westphal tell us, is to practice the hermeneutics of suspicion, alerting ourselves to moments of authorial'and religious blindness-an incisive 'pedagogy (usually associated with the names Derrida and deconstruction) that ironically keeps the conversation going-although admittedly not the conversation that Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud may have desired. Since no one I know has yet accused Merold Westphal of "going postmodern," let me be the first. To the extent that one valorizes the hermeneutics of suspicion one questions the foundations, striking at the dream of philosophy to be fully lucid and present to itself, self-identical and secure. Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Ricoeur, Westphal, we postmoderns -- but who, we?
The postmodern, I have said, shows itself in the interrogation of foundationalist assumptions. Consider two noteworthy assumptions governing Plato's dialectic: I) Platonic dialectic assumes that truth exists as a nonsituated metanarrative, accessible through use of the method. For Plato, dialectic is the pathway "up the divided line," leading to the true, the good, and the beautiful. 2) Platonic dialectic (reflecting Socratic practice) assumes that language mirrors reality in such a way that careful attention to language and definition will reveal the way things really are.
Concerning the first assumption, it is useful to remember that the most serious challenge to the Platonic project came neither from moderns nor postmoderns but from Aristotle, who calmly pointed out the different available meanings of the good and of form, choosing to situate them in things as opposed to outside of them. In deconstructing Plato's system, Aristotle did not feel the need to discard or destroy Plato's metaphysics; he merely reinscribed it, showing the essential possibility of philosophy to be always already other-wise, a violent but necessary gesture if philosophy was to continue, making Aristotle a parricide, just as Plato before him had seen the need to kill off his father figure, Parmenides.18 The violence of metaphysics has been with us long before Heidegger's "destruction of the history of ontology," or Derrida's deconstruction. The postmodern shows itself today in our incredulity towards Plato's metanarrative of "the good beyond being," an incredulity that Aristotle and Nietzsche shared, though Nietzsche is seen (wrongly) as the more violent of the two. Truth? It is merely our most convenient lie, a useful fiction to further our will to power. What are our truths, Nietzsche asked? Merely our irrefutable errors. From here it was but a short step to Foucault's nominalism: Truth is an honorific term, always inducing regular effects of power. Every society has its truth regime, presiding over a general politics of truth, decreeing power-enhancing discourse as true. Truth sets itself up as indispensable, linked by a circular relation to networks of power that produce, sustain, and extend it, a machine to valorize desire and repress resistance. Knowledge/power: power requires Truth Industry, currently housed in trans-national think-tanks, formerly house in the university. From here it is not difficult to view the cultural fissure from which Lyotard and Derrida emerged.
And the second assumption? It has fared no better than the first, attacked on the one side by those compelled to disconnect linguistic analysis from metaphysics, pronouncing the premature "end" of the latter in an orgy of rule-making positivism that gave us the Vienna Circle; and on the other side by Richard Rorty, who explodes the metaphor of philosophy as a mirror of nature in his book, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature.19
What has survived from Plato's experiment? Not his precise notion of dialectic, for it (like all methods) had smuggled in a set of metaphysical assumptions that could not be defended. Consequently, the meaning of dialectic must shift from Plato to Aristotle, and from thence to modernity, where it was destined to be politicized in opposite directions by the Prussian-apologist Hegel and the communist Marx. Becoming more tolerant of ambiguity with Merleau-Ponty, it finally encounters Adorno, giddy for negation, suspicious of identity, hostile to reconciliation, resigned to the failure of philosophy-the very exemplar of the exiled philosopher. (Philosophy, to paraphrase Adorno, which once and always seemed obsolete, lives on because the moment to realize it was missed, now as before. Having broken its pledge to become as one with reality, or at the point of realization, philosophy is now obliged to ruthlessly criticize itself in the self-righteous conviction that one's own theory will escape the inevitable deterioration of yet another form of self-advertisement.)20
What then' remains? If not the dialectic-as-method, if not the longed-for foundation, then what? Only the dialogue, the "we" of philosophic community. We are left to console each other with the conversation of the end(s) of philosophy. Nihilistic? No more nihilistic than say, W. T. Jones, in his famous quotation, featured in so many introductory philosophy textbooks:
Philosophy is the eternal search for truth, a search which inevitably fails yet is never defeated; which continually eludes us, but which always guides us. This free, intellectual life of the mind is the noblest inheritance of the .. world; it is also the hope of the future.
Ah, hope! And what has become of hope in the time of the postmodern? One thinks of Ernst Bloch, Thomas Mann, Elie Wiesel, moderns who gave themselves over to the task of forging hope in the darkest hours of this century. What is their wisdom? Hope arises only from hopelessncss.21 This is no idle, nihilistic sense of doom, and if it appears to be so, consider the voice of yet another postmodern, Emmanuel Levinas:
Reason is never so versatile as when it puts itself in question. In the contemporary end of philosophy, philosophy has found a new lease on life.21
Comstock wonders how the conversation can continue without rules and metanarratives. I respond: since when were the rules and metanarratives not in question? There is no real reason to fear that the postmodern will expunge the good, the true, and the beautiful, for that is to attribute to it a power impossible to grant. Simply put, this is a suicide we are not only incapable of performing, but also, ironically, one best prevented by the postmodern. The good, the true, and the beautiful, shiny with constant use, function best when allowed to remain culturally plural. The totalization of truth is what we have learned to fear most. The friendly face of fascism, one must remember, was announced to Italians and Germans as truth. Stalin effectively marshaled a Truth Industry to justify his purges; Orwell's Winston Smith -- do not miss the irony -- worked in the Ministry of Truth. Paul Feyerabend laments the society in which a single myth-as-truth predominates; where all fields of inquiry are populated by true believers and truth is centralized, mischief and danger lurk. The present age, he believes, is endangered by the myth of science-as-king, and technology in the service of the king. Who, he asks, shall protect society from scientific experts?23 As Feyerabend wisely observes, "The most serious tasks require the lightest touch." The totalization of power/truth is terror; the totalization of goodness is the beast; the totalization of beauty is too terrible for human eyes to see.
The grand metanarratives of the good, the true, and the beautiful have been fractured; like Humpty Dumpty they have had a great fall. At least this is one fairy tale. Perhaps you will become suspicious if I were to suggest that the truth is, they were always already exceedingly fragile. Already breaking apart in Aristotle's hands (Being splintered in all directions -- the liberation of the special sciences24), the tradition has been backing and filling ever since, arguably coming closest to recovery in the encyclopedic effort of Hegel and the hermeneutical phenomenology of Heidegger. Every great thinker thinks but one thought, said Heidegger, and it was given to him to think the recovery of die frage nach dem Sinn von Sein. But the promise of "the gathering of thought" is quickly exchanged in the infamous 1933 inaugural lecture for an oath of loyalty to the Fuhrer, as Heidegger strategically replaces the "in-each-case-mine" Dasein of Sein und Zeit with the collective Dasein of a fatefully existing and "in-each-case-our" people [Volk].25 Among the many commentators to call attention to Heidegger's totalitarian pronouncements no reader is more sensitive to the dangers of totality than Jacques Derrida, whose book De l'esprit: Heidegger et la question deconstructs the Heideggerian language of spirit to uncover the fire and terror within.
It would be a mistake to think of deconstruction as merely some violence done to a text, or to a unity. Derrida makes it clear that a text deconstructs itself, as moments of undecidability point away from the stability of meaning. The overdetermination of texts results in Plato against himself on the status of the pharmakon, Rousseau undoing himself by the "logic of the supplement," Husserl vs. Hesserl vs. Hesserl in La voix et la phenomene, and so on. Deconstruction operates under a lawlike necessity that is far from being the arbitrary freeplay-in-the-blue irresponsibility that critics (often getting their information from Time and Newsweek) have found it to be.
If the deconstructor is Derrida, one may be sure that the text will be handled with care, responsibly, and returned to its owners -- all of us. The postmodern conversation after all is our conversation, and it is we postmoderns who shall have to live amidst the fragments of a world whose unraveling can be traced back to the work of our own hands, doing what we have always done -- making and unmaking texts of meaning, This is no mindless, deathlike nihilism; it is merely the realization that it is the discourse of modernity, after all, that has put forward the unpresentable in its own presentation, moving the conversation along until now. The mark of the postmodern is the stark refusal to cultivate a nostalgia for the unattainable. Rather than strive for the unattainable in the shadow of the total, the postmodern searches for newer presentations, if for no other reason than to impart a stronger sense of the unpresentable.26 The postmodern marshals resistance to the totality, knowing that the price of the illusion that one can have it all is terror. And we have had enough of the terror of the totality, we moderns. We postmoderns, all of us, can follow Lyotard when he states,
The nineteenth and twentieth centuries have given us as much terror as we can take. We have paid a high enough price for the nostalgia of the whole and the one, for the reconciliation of the concept and the sensible, of the transparent and the communicable experience. Under the general demand for slackening and for appeasement, we can hear the mutterings of the desire for a return of lerror, for the realization of the fantasy to seize reality. The answer is: Let us wage a war on totality; let us be witnesses to the unpresentable; let us activate the differences and save the honor of the name.27
Knowing the risks, accepting even the totalizing gesture of the assigned proper name Postmodernism (even now an epithet of abuse on the lips of all those who would silence Lyotard and Derrida; who would wish to bury them with the late literary critic Paul de Man, leaping in, the process to a blanket condemnation of Deconstruction and American higher education;28 and doing all this without the bother of reading Derrida or Lyotard, preferring Time and Newsweek), one must seemingly content oneself for now with this fragmented, fragmenting narrative.
“Before we are forgotten we will be turned into kitsch. Kitsch is the stopover between being and oblivion.” - Milan Kundera
And what of Doug? Where is his voice now? We experience it only as loss; a loss of life, but not a loss of desire, for it moves us now, even now. Who or what has silenced this voice? Can we (who, we?) still chance to say that his voice was silenced by the postmodern? Or was it rather that the postmodern gave voice to his most authentic self, and it was this voice that empowered him to go down the road as far as he had strength to travel?
His voice, may I suggest (trembling now myself) was silenced not by the postmodern (for what would such an end be?) but by a force large as life itself, residing within us, taunting us as the totality mocking our lack, daring us to finalize smallness along with all our inadequacies. Such a force must be resisted. The postmodern gave Doug a voice to resist for a while, all too brief. In his grief Comstock wonders whether postmodern fidelity to the metanarrative might have saved Doug, forgetting that it is (the modern) that fractured the Christian metanarrative, first with Darwin, then with a higher criticism that put its holy book in question, exhibiting the seams and stitches of sources and redactors as incredulity grew, and "man came of age" (to use Bonhoeffer's formula). Finally, can we not say that Comstock himself, by valorizing the good, the true, and the beautiful and juxtaposing this metanarrative alongside Doug's death, ironically interrogates the very tradition he claims might have saved his friend? Was it not good enough, true enough, beautiful enough? The questions here are too brutal, I will not pursue them further...
In The Unbearable Lightness of Reins, Czech novelist Milan Kundera tells the story of Tomas, a surgeon, who writes a letter that is critical of the government and sends it to an underground newspaper for publication. For this "subversive act" he is subsequently reduced by the authorities to the status of window washer. (Such things were not uncommon in post-1968 Prague.) Tomas is amused by this change in his fortunes -- he gradually comes to the realization that whereas his former profession required him to slit open the surface of things to look at w~at is hidden beneath, being a window washer requires him to remain at the surface of things, Long attracted by Beethoven's stern, aggressive, solemn "Es muss sein!" (Kundera's shorthand for weight in the novel), Tomas now realizes that he is blissfully indifferent to it -- like the ancient Parmenides, he is learning how to make heavy go to light, how to move from weight to lightness. Kundera takes delight in pointing out to his readers the origin of the famous "Es muss sein" motif. A certain man named Dembscher owed Beethoven fifty florins; when the composer, who was chronically short of funds, reminded him of the debt, Dembscher heaved a mournful sigh and said "Muss es sein?" To this Beethoven replied, with a hearty laugh, "Es muss sein," and immediately wrote down these words and their melody. Around this motif, born of a joke, Beethoven then composed a canon for four voices: three voices sing "Es muss sein, es muss sein, ja, ja, ja, ja," and the fourth chimes in with "Heraus mit dem Beutal!" (out with the purse). A year later, when the same motif shows up in Opus 135, Beethoven had forgotten about Dembscher's purse. The words "Es muss sein," Kundera writes,
had acquired a much more solemn ring; they seemed to issue directly from the lips of Fate. In Kant's language, even "Good morning," suitably pronounced, can take the shape of a metaphysical thesis. German is a language of heavy words. "Es muss sein" was no longer a joke; it had become "der scher gefassle Entschluss" (the difficult or weighty resolution).29
In this way, Beethoven turned a frivolous inspiration into an occasion for seriousness, making the transition from lightness to weight. This transformation fails to surprise us, for it fits our conception of metaphysics -- even a joke can be transformed into a metaphysical truth. And yet, as we shall see in the next section, the quest of Parmenides lies in the opposite direction – how does one go from weight to lightness? Tomas' longing for lightness (represented in the novel by the character Sabina) amounts to a postmodern wisdom -- how to make heavy go to light.
For Kundera, weight comes to be associated with kitsch -- it functions in the novel variously as an aesthetical, metaphysical, and political category. Kitsch is historically bound to the sentimental rationalism of the nineteenth century, and is the enemy of all true art for it never aspires to lightness, preferring to polysaturate everything. (Such "art" is not healthy! Think of the kitschy film, "Dr. Zhivago" -- poor Pasternak, Kundera cries!) Kitsch is the result of the "Es muss sein" applied uncritically to art as well as politics. It bespeaks an aesthetical inability to remain light and a failure to celebrate the surface; gone the irony, gone the humor, gone the play which is essential to all creative acts. (A new irony in recent days has announced itself: who could have foreseer that an imprisoned playwright, Yaclav Havel, whose resistance to Soviet totalitarianism was, like Kundera's, artistic, would become President of Czechoslovakia in a "velvet revolution" that shook off Soviet domination? If we had been told a year ago that this would happen, we would have regarded it as a bad joke. Kundera, perhaps, has had the last laugh: his first novel (suppressed in. his homeland, vilified by the authorities, and the occasion of his exile to Paris) was entitled The Joke.30)
When Tomas died, his dutiful, serious-minded son tried to pay homage to the political resistance of his father by inscribing these words on Tomas' tombstone: HE WANTED THE KINGDOM OF GOD ON EARTH. With a few strokes of the chisel he thus managed to reduce the resistance of his father (who had learned to desire the surface, preferring Beethoven's jest to Beethoven's metaphysics) to a piece of wet kitsch. By the same token, I fear that Comstock, by retelling Doug's story as a post modern morality tale, has succeeded only in writing an epitaph for Doug which is pure kitsch.
Try to refrain from cursing the darkness -- or, if curse you must, at the very least do not name the darkness with but one name (postmodern) -- for darkness threatens us all, and at times (as J. R. R. Tolkien reminds us in a happier tale) friends are found in the most unlikely places.
The epigraph appearing on the first page of this paper is a line from Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being.31 In this remarkable novel Kundera's wonder about Nietzsche's mal recurrence is set in the context of lightness and weight. Kundera suggests that the myth of eternal recurrence means that a life which disappears once and for all, which does not return, is like a shadow without weight, dead in advance. Whether it was humble or sublime or beautiful, il means nothing; we take no more note of it than we do a war between two African kingdoms in the fourteenth century, a war that altered nothing in the destiny of the universe, even if a hundred thousand blacks may have perished in torment. Will the war between these two African kingdoms be altered, Kundera asks, if it is to recur again and again in an eternal return? Surely it would. If the French Revolution were to recur eternally, Kundera notes, French historians would be less proud of Robespierre, for there is an infinite difference between a Robespierre who appears but once in history (evaporating into a tissue of words, theories, and lies, lighter than air), and a Robespierre who eternally recurs, chopping off French heads. In a world which occurs but once, Kundera is left with the absurdity of a nostalgic reconciliation with the Hitler of his lost youth, revealing the moral perversity of a world that rests on the non-existence of return. In such a world everything is pardoned in advance, and therefore everything cynically permitted.
If our lives recur an infinite number of times, Kundera states, we are nailed to eternity as Jesus Christ was nailed to the cross, a terrifying prospect. In a world of eternal return, the weight of unbearable responsibility lies heavy on each move we make, which is why Nietzsche called the idea of return the heaviest of burdens [das schwerste Gewicht].
If eternal return is the heaviest of burdens, then our lives can stand out against it in all their splendid lightness.
But is heaviness truly deplorable and lightness splendid? ... [T]he absolute absence of burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into the heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant.32
In the most perplexing portion of Comstock's article, he takes up the question of lightness and weight, narrating for us a paper that Doug wrote shortly before his death. This paper spoke enigmatically of a "stay-out-of-trouble-weight" -- Doug's postmodern Catholicism -- "which is so heavy... you can see through it and yet still believe." In another place in his paper Doug referred to the virgin Mary as "she-who-takes-the-weight-away."
Comstock offers his interpretation of these disturbing images: 1) Postmodern religion is religion "you see through but do not really believe"; 2) postmodern religion is a tool one uses to "weight oneself down," serious religion; 3) postmodern religion ultimately proves to be too light (insufficiently heavy) to weight oneself with, as evidenced by Doug's suicide, which effectively "ended" the postmodern religious dialogue he and Comstock had been sharing.
Once again, I wish to disconnect Doug's death from his enchantment with the postmodern. One is reminded of the tragic death of Walter Benjamin; isn't it highly dubious to claim that Benjamin's death can be attributed to modernity?33 Isn't it more helpful to say that it is the weight of the world that crushed both Benjamin and Doug and countless others who proved to be too fragile for this world, or were made the victim of a repressive totalitarian regime? Figures as diverse as Brecht, Bloch, Adorno, Mann, Gandhi, Wiesel, Woolf, King, and Tutu have testified to the intolerable weight of a world awash in hatred, violence, racism, sexism, and genocide. Hasn't religion always understood itself as a balm to the painful weight of the world?34 Isn't Doug's post modern yearning for weightlessness indicative of his response to the invitation of Jesus, who beckoned all of us with these words:
Come to me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.35
Rather than wondering whether post modern religion is serious enough or weighty enough [gravitas] to keep us close to the earth, can we re-orient our thinking so that the context shifts from demands for counter-weight to resistance-to-weight, or religious weightlessness? The "splendid lightness of being" would then celebrate ironically the surface, resisting the numbing weight of religious conflict and intellectual terrorism, yoking itself to the pure peaceableness of Christ in a dizzying, mirthful celebration of the true behind truth, the God behind God, and the religious behind religion. Could such a thing be what Jesus had in mind when he called his sad-eyed disciples away from the weight of the law and towards the life of the Spirit? Ironically, the sheer joy of this kind of religious affirmation would lie in its playful distancing from religious weight -- not at all a denial or destruction of weight so much as a resistance and refusal to submit to the totalizing, weighty ecclesiastical power-gesture. There is a lightness here to keep us on our toes, ready to dance, nimble as the newly converted Luther, freed for the first time to hear the laughter of God.
Already one can hear the protests to such weightlessness. "What of tradition, orthodoxy, orthopraxy?" "How does one reconcile lightness and play with the somber study of soteriology?" (This is Jurgen Moltmann's problematic in his Theologyof Play.) Serious questions, these, and ones that Jesus frequently heard.36 Every person on the boundary of lightness and weight must answer these questions. Already in the fifth century B.C. Plato was compelled to speak to the issue of lightness and weight. He did so with a joke, having fun at the expense of poor Thales.37 What of the tradition of "high seriousness" in religious garb? The playful Nietzsche had a response: "I could only believe in a God that could dance."
Lightness or weight? The question intrigued the ancients, Parmenides in particular. Kundera again, in the passage immediately following our epigraph:
Parmenides posed this question in the sixth century before Christ. He saw the world divided into pairs of opposites: light/darkness, fineness/coarseness, warmth/cold, being/ non-being. One half of the opposition he called positive (light, fineness, warmth, being), the other negative. We might find this division into positive and negative poles childishly simple except for one difficulty: which is positive, weight or lightness?
Parmenides responded: Lightness is positive, weight negative. Was he correct or not? That is the question. The only certainty is: the lightness/weight opposition is the most mysterious, most ambiguous of all.38
And so it is. Lightness and weight, Parmenides and Kundera, we postmoderns -- but who, we?39
1 See, for example, Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon and Shuster, 1987) pp. 379f., and Carl F. H. Henry, Twilight of a Great Civilization: The Drift Toward Neo-Paganism (Westchester, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1988), pp. I35f. In both of these books, Nietzsche and Jacques Derrida fare poorly, as does deconstruction. Yet, regrettably, neither Bloom nor Henry demonstrates familiarity with the scholarly literature in these fields. The footnotes tell the story: although both texts are characterized by a harsh, polemical (even moralizing) tone, neither Bloom nor Henry demonstrates a mastery of the primary source material, or even a hint that Derrida's important texts have been read. To put it simply, if well-intentioned readers purchased these books in order to further their understanding of Derrida, Nietzsche, deconstruction, Or postmodernism, they would not advance very far.
Persons interested in Derrida, in particular, would do far better to consult the numerous English translations, beginning with ‘Speech and Phenomena’ and Other Essays on Husser/'s Theory of Signs, trans. David B. Allison (Evanston, III.: Northwestern University Press, 1973); Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976); Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978); and Positions, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981).
Secondary sources on Derrida and deconstruction that are especially helpful include Rodolphe Gasche, The Tain of the Mirror: Derrida and the Philosophy of Reflection (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986); Irene Harvey, Derrida and the Economy of Differance (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1986); John Llewelyn, Derrida On the Threshold of Sense (London: Macmillan, 1986); and Christopher Norris, Derrida (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1987). Of these four, Norris' is the most helpful, providing both a general introduction to Derrida as well as an original contribution to the scholarly debate.
Books dealing with the postmodern phenomenon in a helpful way include Jean Francois Lyotard's enormously influential The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), and Andrew Ross, ed., Universal Abandon: The Politics of Postmodernism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988). Important critics of postmodernism include the Marxist theorists Jurgen Habermas, Terry Eagleton, and Frederik Jameson. The latter two are literary theorists. Especially important are Habermas' The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, trans. Frederick Lawrence (Cambridge, Mass.: M.1.T. Press, 1987); Jameson's, "Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of late Capitalism," New Left Review, 146 July/August 1984), pp, 53-92; and Eagleton's "Marxism and Deconstruction," Contemporary Literature (Fall, 1981), pp. 477-488.
2 Gary L. Comstock, "Is Postmodern Religious Dialogue Possible," Faith and Philosophy, Vol. 6, NO.2 (April, 1989), pp. 189-197.
3 I prefer this designation as opposed to the standard label “postmodernism,” which tends to suggest a false dichotomy between the modern and the postmodern. The point is, the postmodern is always already irrupting into the discourse of modernity.
4 For remarks concerning "the serious and the postmodern," see Gary John Percesepe, Future(s) of Philosophy: The Marginal Thinking of Jacques Dcrrida (New York: Peter Lang, 1988), pp. 201-208.
5 Are epiphenomenalists more prone to divorce than say, identity theorists or Husserlian phenomenologists? One quickly sees the absurdity of such a query. Still, the notion of "end" in philosophy is no simple matter, as Hegel showed so forcefully. More recently, the "end of philosophy" has ironically ignited new interest in philosophy, crossing over into literary theory and psychoanalysis. For a balanced discussion of the contemporary "end of philosophy” debate featuring analytic and continental voices, see Afler Philosophy: End or Transformation, ed. Kenneth Baynes, James Bohman, and Thomas McCarthy (Cambridge, M.LT. Press, 1987).
6 This is the wish of Jurgen Habermas in Tile Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, trans. Frederick Lawrence (Cambridge, Mass.: M.I.T. Press, 1987). Agreeing with postmoderns that the modern paradigm of consciousness is worn out, Habermas nevertheless insists that the defects of the Enlightenment can be corrected only by further enlightenment. His trenchant, sometimes cranky analysis is most convincing when discussing Heidegger, least helpful when discussing Derrida.
7 Lyotard, p. 81. Italics are mine.
8 The first question of the term is still the most delicate moment in university seminars where would-be Socratics continue the conversation.
9 Note the f-word again -- it was still not too late to think foundations to be secure if they were philosophical, q dream dreamed frequently in philosophy, most notably by Descartes in 1619, destined to be decoded.
10 For an illuminating account of the historical usage of this formula, see Genevieve Lloyd, The Man of Reason: Male and Female in Western Philosophy (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985).
11 The foundation is threatened when it is suspected of being arbitrary or unreasonable, for only the "unreasonable" offers a genuine threat to the reasonable. Thus, the most effective weapon in Truth's arsenal is the charge of "irrationalism," a philosophical crime serious enough to require deputizing every philosopher to police all discourse -- hence the need for logic. The confusion of "irrational" with "counter-rational" is a hallmark of those who persist in viewing the postmodern as a nihilistic "escape from reason."
12 See The Marx-Engels Reader, 2nd Edition, ed. Robert C. Tucker (New York: W. W. Norton, 1978), pp. 12--15.
13 See Husserl's 1911 essay, "Philosophie als strenge Wissenschaft," translated as “Philosophy as Rigorous Science," in Phenomenology and the Crisis of Philosophy, ed. Quentin Lauer (New York: Harper and Row, 1965).
14 The Habermas-Derrida debate is one of the liveliest in continental philosophy today.
15 See William Alston, "Epistemic Circularity:' Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. XLVII. no. 1, (Sept. 19R6); Alvin Plantinga). Faith and Rationality. Ed. Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame, 1983); and Nicholas Wolterstorff, Reason Within the Bounds of Religion (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Co., 1976). Of course, it should be pointed out that there are many varieties of anti-foundationalism extant today. The writers mentioned above, while opposed to classical foundationalism, appear to hold to a "soft foundationalism." Thus, Alston holds that a "level distinction" is necessary; such that there could in fact be justified beliefs that act as a foundation even though we could not know, this to be the case. Plantinga would want to argue that belief in God is properly basic (or foundational).
The question of foundationalism and its wildly divergent critics is far too complex to untangle in this small space. I only wish to point out that post moderns are not the only thinkers to reject Enlightenment foundationalism. Abandonment of the myth of foundations does not necessarily lead to nihilism (as Wolterstorff has shown), or political quietism (as Michel Foucault and Derrida have demonstrated), just as uncertainty as to how an enemy will attack does not lead to passivity. Rather, as Ernesto Laclau points out, it leads to a proliferation of discursive interventions of every stripe, because there is no extradiscursive reality (in Lyotard's terms, no meta-recits) that discourse might simply and unproblemalically reflect.
Where postmodern thinkers differ from some anti-foundationalists is in the explicit linkage of epistemic legitimation with political legitimation. Believing that all reality is socially constructed at the local, not global discursive level, interminal activism is necessary; since epistemic and political legitimation can no longer reside in transcendental metanarratives, postmodern legitimation must become local, plural, and immanent. Practitioners -- whether epistemic or political -- simply assume responsibility for legitimizing their own practices. In Lyotard's words, what is required is "a justice of multiplicities.”; Lack of grounding, then, does not lead to the abolishment of meaning for human acts; it only affirms human limits, finitude, and historicity. A significant problem for postmoderns, however, is how to achieve social bonding in the face of multiple, disparate discursive practices. Many postmoderns have embraced Michel Foucault's "smallish, localized narratives," preferring them to Marxism's' large, global, theoretical metanarrative, This had led to increasing tensions between postmoderns and Marxists, the latter believing the former to be "aestheticizing" and fracturing the political. See Nancy Frasure and Linda Nicholson, "Social Criticism without Philosophy: An Encounter between Feminism and Postmodernism," and Ernesto Laclau, "Politics and the Limits of Modernity," in Andrew Ross, ed., Universal Abandonment: The Politics of Postmodernism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988) pp. 63-104.
16 Paul Ricoeur, Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation, trans. Denis Savage (New York: Yale University Press, 1970).
17 See Merold Westphal, "Taking Suspicion Seriously: The Religious Uses of Modern Atheism," Faith and Philosophy, Vol. 4, No.1, January, 1987), pp. 26-42.
18 See Plato's Sophist, 237-241e. Do not fail to note the Stranger's call for putting the testimony of Pannenides' to "a degree of torture.”
19 Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton: University of Princeton Press, 1979). It is unfortunate that, in the popular imagination, Rorty has come to be thought of as the quintessential postmodern thinker, and a reliable interpreter of Derrida's thought. In point of fact, Rorty has consistently misunderstood Derrida, beginning with his early essay "Philosophy as a Kind of Writing: An Essay on Derrida," New Literary History, X, (197S--79), pp. 141-160. Apparently, Rorty is too busy advancing his own version of pragmatism to come to grips with Derrida's complex textual argumentation, which cannot be reduced to edifying metaphors. The books by Norris, Gasche, and Harvey are helpful correctives to Rorty's version of Derrida as a compatriot. See Norris, pp. 150--160.
20 See Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E. B. Ashton (New York: Seabury Press, 1979).
21 "Ave crux unica apes: Hail cross, our only hope! This ancient Christian phase sounds so nonsensical as to be embarrassing. Yet, as Jurgen Moltmann reminds us in countless ways, the wisdom of Christianity is to link hope to the despair and alienation of Christ forsaken on the cross. Our disappointments, loneliness and defeats do not separate us from him, they draw us to him in deepest communion. In solidarity with his final unanswered cry, "Why, my God, why?" we join in his death cry and await with him our resurrection. In the cross of Christ the despair that oppresses us becomes free to hope. One might well ask, "Who are we -- who are we -- to deny the possibility of postmodern hope." The end is not always what it appears to be.
22 Quoted in an interview with Emmanuel Levinas in Face to Face With Levinas, ed. Richard A. Cohen (Albany: SUNY Press, 1986), p. 33.
24 See Aristotle's Metaphysics, Book IV, Chapter 1.
25 Habermas, p. 157.
26 Lyotard, p. 81.
28 Comstock's approach to suicide and the postmodern is roughly analogous to the recent attempt by critics to link Derrida and deconstruction to the recently discovered youthful anti-Semitism of former Yale critic Paul de Man. The strategy is the same: postulate a causal link between deconstruction and some personal or social evil. Conclude that, since this way of thought has given rise to such an evil, something must be wrong with the way of thought. Of course, establishing such a causal link is a highly dubious affair. For a sampling of Derrida's response to his frequently ill-informed critics in connection with deconstruction and the Paul de Man anti-Semitic writings of the 1940s, see "Like the Sound of the Sea Deep within a Shell: Paul De Man's War," Critical Inquiry, Vol. 14, NO.3 (Spring, 1988), pp. 590- 652. This article has recently been expanded by Derrida and published as the last essay in the revised edition of Memoires for Paul de Man (New York; Columbia University Press, 1989). (The revised edition contains a sharply worded response to Habermas, who on numerous occasions has accused Derrida of "performative contradictions." See pp. 259f.)
I am currently exploring the surprising relationship between Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind and Derrida's "The Principle of Reason: The University in the Eyes of its Pupils," Diacritics, Vol. xix (1983), pp. 3--20. Derrida observes that a founding act cannot simply be included in the logic of what it founds; hence, the foundation of the university is not itself an academic founding because the principle of reason is not in itself rational. As Peirce observed, one cannot demand a reason for reasonableness. Suppose one were to question the university's founding upon reason, what then? The university today is engaged in multiple new acts of founding (the polite term is "examining its mission"), suggesting that it is precariously founded, A small shift in type will suggest that the university founders, a theme Bloom has taken up with a vengeance, assuming that there was a mythic time in which the foundation was rational and philosophical. "Philosophy at the University" is the title of a "Contemporary Perspectives'" section in my philosophy textbook, The Labor of Reason (New York Macmillan, forthcoming 1991).
29 Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, trans. Michael Henry Heim (New York:
Harper and Row, 1984), p. 195. Hereafter cited as ULB.
30 Milan Kundera, The Joke, trans. Michael Henry Heim (New York: Harper and Row, 1982).
31 Milan Kundera, ULB, p. 5.
33 In a helpful footnote to his article on pp. 196--197, Comstock seems to retreat from the notion that a causal relation exists between postmodernism and Doug's suicide; one must, seemingly, remain agnostic on this question. Yet the whole point of his article is that such a causal relation does in fact exist (the implication being that postmodernism may end the lives of any unfortunates who are predisposed to think as Doug thought). Comstock's footnote is meant to "signal his discomfort" with his own position(s); it is an admission on his part that there are alternative ways of telling this story. I agree, and have tried (however inadequately) to do so.
34 Marx took note of this feature of religion and disapproved of course, believing that it substituted an illusory consolation for a real examination of the causes of alienation and oppression. Hence the classic passage from his "Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right" (in Tucker, pp. 53-54): "Religion is the sighing of the crushed creature, the heart of a world without heart, the spirit of an age without spirit. ... The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of men, is a demand for their real happiness. The call to abandon their illusions about their condition is a call to abandon a condition which requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, the embryonic criticism of this vale of lears of which religion is the halo." This essay, written at the close of 1843 and demonstrating Marx's indebtedness to Feurbach and Hegel, sounds, to trained ears, every bit as serious, momentous, and weighty as religion itself. The burden of heavy-handed, totalistic Marxist ideology, collapsing in Eastern Europe and around the world, will not be borne by postmodern thinkers. The sharpest critics of the postmodern, unsurprisingly, include Marxian thinkers who make accusations of frivolity, non-seriousness, and political quietism against postmodern thinkers. Lightness and weight.
35 Matthew 11:28-30, New International Version, italics mine.
36 See Luke 7:31-35, where Jesus responded to the Pharisees who criticized his allegedly frivolous lifestyle. Such critics always fail to see the seriousness of play and the religious significance of going from weight to lightness; rejecting the good news, they prefer the converse.
37 See Plato's Theatetus, 173c-176.
38 Kundera, ULB, pp 5-6.
39 I wish to thank Arthur Holmes, whose invitation to participate in William Alston's Wheaton College Summer Philosophy Seminar in June, 1988, gave me the opportunity to meet Gary Comstock, with whom I have had remarkably rewarding conversations. I also wish to thank Merold Westphal, James Marsh, Martin Matustik, Patricia Huntington, Henry Carrigan, Arthur Holmes, William Alston, Gary Comstock, and CSR's anonymous referees for helpful criticisms of this paper. I have read various versions of this paper at the Socialist Scholars Conference in March 1989, the Ohio American Academy of Religion in April, 1989, the Midwest Regional American Academy of Religion in March, 1990, and the Society of Christian Philosophers' Eastern Regional meeting in April, 1990.