The Dark Night of the Liberal Spirit and the Dawn of the Savage
Michael A. Weinstein
I propose to undertake a critique of contemporary American liberalism, specifically what is commonly called “neo-liberalism,” from the foundation of a phenomenological reflection on modern consciousness. Liberalism, as a political formula for self-consciously organizing society, is fatefully bound to the continuance of the modern understanding of life and cannot survive the failure to instantiate that understanding into consciousness, to make it the very constitution of consciousness. The current talk about a postmodern historical period appears, therefore, to be an admission that liberalism is a thing of the past. Yet the very term “postmodern” is empty of any positive content, subsisting tensely to signify a craving for its own transmutation into something fundamentally new, a fresh description of the structure of life that would carry with it a transfigured politics. There is also a radical uncertainty in the postmodern mind, a suspicion that there is no transformation on the horizon, that consciousness is incarcerated in the categories of modernity and must face the realization that the human self has at last become fully lucid to itself, that now is the time to learn to live within a final self-understanding and not to escape into new visions. Taken together the craving for radical novelty and the nagging doubt that it is a genuine possibility make postmodernism another instance of avant-garde modernism, perhaps the last one, the final modern irony.
Postmodernism is the modern reflection on the loss of dynamism in modernity, its self-closure, and the inability to get beyond it: postmodern consciousness bounds the boundless, but the “dynamic insight” of continuous change, as Karl Mannheim called it, has been inextricably associated with modernity. Thus, postmodern consciousness is the pure dialectical negation of modern consciousness, locked in an embrace with it, decreeing that it must assent to just what it is most unwilling to hold close to itself, its own being as a static form. Postmodernity is the most acute instance of the “unhappy consciousness,” an empty craving for liberation, for the unlimited, crashing against the success of self-determination. Politically, it is decomposed or deconstructed liberalism, a spasmodic hope for progress unhinged from life by a corrosive, nostalgic doubt.
Postmodernism is the most recent of the “waiting philosophies” that have characterized twentieth-century Western culture, the most profound of which is Martin Heidegger’s effort to open himself to the voice of Being, undertaken within an “interregnum.” I shall initiate a phenomenological reflection on modern consciousness by questioning waiting philosophy, which is constituted by the pure intentionality of a receptive strain towards that which does not appear and the appearance of that which is held in doubt. The intentionality itself cannot be criticized on its own terms: it is a possible structure of consciousness that is not self-contradictory; that is, one can form one’s being-in-the-world according to uncertain expectation. Thus, a critical approach to the unhappy consciousness of postmodernity will have to proceed by treating it as a symptom of an act of evading a more primary intentionality, as a form of neurotic compromise between a judgment of the truth about personal existence and a wish that the judgment was false. The life of uncertain expectation is a form of dissociated existence in which one carries out all daily activities according to the requirements of social function and legal fiction, while experiencing these activities as detached from any unifying significance. The sense of importance is fully transcendentalized into the experience of waiting—the round of life becomes reduced to killing time, whereas inwardness is intensified into a restless tension and dis-tension, according to the vicissitudes of doubt. Such a consciousness wrenches itself into a groundless hopefulness through nostalgia for a lost unity, translating deprivation into craving for novelty. It is the breakdown product of the religious will, the historicized wish for salvation divested of its object and even of any symbolization of a questionable object. The waiting attitude is based on the judgment that it is better to hold on to the religious intentionality than it is to become coincident with life, verifying Max Weber’s observation that the modern life that they had created for themselves was too much for human beings to bear. Postmodern consciousness is the very thinnest, almost transparent veil thrown over the modern understanding of life, a nisus towards the beyond superadded to finite mundanity and, therefore, the most austere of the modern cultural neuroses. As the pure wish for a transformation that is held to be questionable or even, more purely, impossible, it discloses its other, its dialectical reciprocal, without any necessity of interpretation. That other, detached from the vacantly straining expectation, but always juxtaposed to it, is the formed content of modern life itself.
Modern consciousness may be grasped most generally through the act by which the self seizes itself from within in a declaration-deed; that is, the self actualizes its own being through a declaration. My paradigm here is the Cartesian cogito through which the self is realized partially as a “thinking substance” though not yet as a complete life. Indeed, the phenomenology of the modern mind is a remorseless, uncompromising process of enriching and intensifying the inward center of individuated life until it reaches the limit of its empire, and must then either try desperately to transcend itself or learn to live within the boundaries that it has made lucid to itself. The historical moments of modern consciousness are familiar. From the Cartesian starting point of the thinking ego one passes to the self-legislating will of Kant and finally to Nietzsche’s passionate and personated flesh, best captured by Unamuno’s designation, “the man of flesh and bone, who is born, suffers, and dies.” One of the great ironies of postmodern consciousness is that it recreates the Cartesian starting point through an inversion. When Descartes, frustrated in his efforts to discover certain knowledge that would enable him “to walk with confidence in this life,” finally was impelled to make himself the object of inquest, he seized a thinking ego from which no linkages could be made to his daily life. Indeed, his only connection to the other-than-self was transcendental, was to the idea of perfection. Lacking a bridge to mundanity, he devised a “provisional morality” that enjoined him to live with good will according to the usages of those around him. For Descartes there was hope that genuine and satisfactory connections would be made to the world through rational investigation, so his was a patient waiting. Now with the modern closed in upon itself the waiting returns, only it is desperate and impatient. There is the same detachment of life from spirit, but it is not the pregnant suspension filled with expectation of the unfolding of a new age; it is bitter nostalgia ungirdled from perfection, craving for a miracle: the cogito has become the pour soi, thought has become the manipulation of signs, and only the barest interiority remains at the very margin. This interiority is necessary to express the judgment that interiority is a useless passion or, in a flight of bad faith, a word functioning to legitimate racial, patriarchal, capitalistic, or, most radically, linguistic domination.
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