an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

 Volume 4, May 2007, ISSN 1552-5112




Lyotard, Habermas and the Virtue of the Universal


Haidar Eid




            Interestingly, Fredric Jameson writes a Marxist foreword for Jean Francois Lyotard's The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1984) in which Lyotard introduces, defines, and promotes the term theoretically, politically, and aesthetically. In defense of plurality and difference he launches an attack on all "Grand Narratives", i.e. totalizing theories:

In contemporary society and culture—postindustrial society, postmodern culture—the question of the legitimation of knowledge is formulated in different terms. The grand narrative has lost its credibility, regardless of what mode of unification it uses, regardless of whether it is a speculative narrative or a narrative of emancipation. (Lyotard, 1984:37)

Subtitled "A Report on Knowledge", the text is an exploration of the [post]modern epistemology as an alternative to the modern and rational "grand narratives". In the introduction, he announces that he has decided to use the word "postmodern" to describe the condition of knowledge. The report is a study of the transformation of knowledge in western culture (1984: xxiii). However, he fails, as Best and Kellner notice, "to produce critical perspectives on modernity as a socioeconomic phenomenon" (1991:165). Moreover, by attacking modern reason, Enlightenment and all other "meta-narratives", he ignores the historical background through which all these "totalizing thoughts" have developed. Thus his [post]modern theory remains isolated in an intellectual ivory tower.

Modern thought, according to Lyotard, legitimates its position by referring to "grand narratives of emancipation", progress, reason and science, all of which are controlled by homogenous criteria and claim "universal knowledge". What all these "metanarratives" lack is a "heterogeneity of language games" which is, of course—according to Lyotard—provided by postmodern knowledge (1984:75). The postmodern condition's position has proceeded from "scepticism" to "pluralism"—knowledge becomes a principal form of production shifting emphasis from "the ends of action [telos] to its means"(37). Like Derrida, Rorty, and other poststructuralists, Lyotard adopts an anti-foundational position against universal truth and knowledge. Innovation does not seem to be the [post]modern ultimate goal: "[the postmodern]denies itself ... the consensus of a taste which would make it possible to share collectively the nostalgia for the unattainable; that which searches for new representations ... in order to impart a strong sense of the unpresentable"(81). The postmodernist then, is a neo-pragmatic "liberal ironist", as Richard Rorty would call her/him, who wages a war on "totality/'terror'"(82). And "[the] postmodern would have to be understood according to the paradox of the future (post) anterior (modo)"(81).

One tends to be persuaded by Lyotard's treatment of the "unpresentable" in a report written on knowledge in a late capitalist society where commodity consumption is the ultimate goal. However, as Jameson notices, in the commodification of culture and aesthetics, there is a constant demand for presenting a new, "unpresentable" aesthetic commodity in order to increase exchange-value. Haug notices also that use-value is masked by making the already purchased and still usable commodity look outdated and in need of change, and hence the need for additional purchasing (qtd. in Shusterman,1988:351). The aim, then, is to increase consumption and thus profits—motives that are not taken into account by Lyotard.  A "dead subject"/individual cannot present "the unpresentable" since s/he has lost her own autonomy, according to Lyotard. The self as a "grand narrative" is a totality, a "terror", "a universal knowledge" that ought to be fought. To create "new rules" and to impart a sense of the "unpresentable" implies the autonomy of the individual, his/her isolation from surrounding societal forces, a modern motif that Lyotard severely, and paradoxically, attacks. Alternatively, the mode of the postmodern, for Lyotard, is the "sublime" which involves a rejection of representationalist aesthetics.

Lyotard's anti-foundational attack on the "terror" of totality which he describes as a "grand narrative", especially the "terror" of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and their legitimation of 'universal knowledge', leads to a break away from modernity and its "terror", and to the adoption of a "postmodern condition"(1984:81). But does this "condition" not presuppose a totalizing grand narrative "which envisages the transition from a previous stage ... to a new one?" (Best and Kellner, 1991:171) In other words, the basis for the adoption of a "postmodern condition" presupposes a totalized "fundamental ground", namely "modernity" and "rupture". How can one reject all previous metanarratives and their discourse, and accept the only anti-metanarrative postmodern condition, that is favoured by Lyotard, without totalizing it? Does it not become homogenous? And--most importantly—can it exist without other narratives? If it is the only narrative one should accept, does that not lead to intellectual fascism?  Are all narratives the same? Does heterogeneity in an advanced, computerized society not require the existence of different narratives beside the postmodern one? Should the working class use the same narrative as that of the multinational capitalists? And women that of men? And "Third World " that of "First World"? And, then, why should human freedom and knowledge—as represented in the modern age—be denounced as "grand narratives of emancipation and enlightenment"? Can "local situations" and "language games" replace them? Edward Said contests this idea: "postmodern intellectuals now prize competence, not universal values like truth or freedom", and he accuses Lyotard and his followers of "admitting their own lazy incapacities [and] even indifference, rather than [adopting] a correct assessment of what remains for the intellectual as a truly vast array of opportunities despite postmodernism" (1994:14).

What makes a narrative not grand, according to Lyotard, is "plurality", "heterogeneity", "difference", "dissensus", "diversity", and "incommensurability"; and yet he prohibits all other narratives and excludes them as taboo from his [post]modern narrative. In his foreword to The Postmodern Condition Jameson contests Lyotard's position by suggesting the "passage [of the great master-narratives] underground ... their continuing but now unconscious effectivity as a way of 'thinking about' and acting in our current situation" (Jameson, 1984:xiii). The past has always been consumed in narrative form, according to Jameson; its storage has differed from primitive writing, to libraries and universities, to computers and microstorage “whose control or even ownership is ... one of the crucial political issues of our own time" (xiii). Lyotard's Report On Knowledge fails, then, to provide us with a clear narrative of contemporary late capitalist society. What it lacks is a dialectical understanding of other 'grand narratives' as catastrophe and progress together. "Rejecting grand narratives", Best and Kellner believe, "simply covers over the theoretical problems of providing a narrative of the contemporary historical situation and points to the untheorized nature of Lyotard's account of the postmodern condition"(1991:173). This would require him, as Kellner and Best argue, to write a "large grand narrative", a theory of postmodernity, which his "condition" prohibits him from doing even if he could. Furthermore, the "plurality" that he advertises, without giving a historical basis for, is an ideological and political strategy of containment used by bourgeois democracy to conceal the dominant hierarchy of hegemonic exploitation in culture—by positing the various sites of power as "equal" (Zavarzadeh and Morton, 1994:100). This "equality" is supposed to create a heavy layer on the material exploitation of one class by another under the claim of "plurality" and unique "individuality", or even "fragmented subjectivity".


Late Capitalist Political Economy

The Postmodern Condition is an analysis of the way knowledge is controlled in highly computerized societies, the way knowledge is represented as a game of language, and the way "universal knowledge" is "delegitimized". What it fundamentally lacks is, again, social and historical understanding of the basis of a late capitalist society. That is, there is no attempt by Lyotard to analyze the reasons for the most advanced form of capitalism's inability to lay foundations for a productive system that could meet all human needs efficiently. Lyotard's ideas should, in fact, be discussed in relation to the reasons that led to the spread of the nihilistic and pessimistic poststructuralism after 1968. The loss of hope in any revolutionary potential in the working class, the failure of the French radical left to lead the already mobilized workers, the quick spread and then retreat of the so-called "New Left" and Herbert Marcuse's ideas concerning the end of the proletariat, and—most importantly—the rise of other social movements, i.e. students, blacks, women, all of which are internal western elements that are undoubtedly related to social developments after World War II. What is needed is a clear study of the dynamics of the movements that have contributed to the 1960s upheaval, a study of the basis of a new alliance among the oppressed micro groups, as Jameson suggests (1991), that formed the core of the May movement, and the relationship between the different forms of oppression such as racism, sexism and the exploitation of workers. The anti-capitalist and anti-colonial consciousness that characterized the 1960s has not been studied dialectically by the postmodern thinkers, among whom is Lyotard whose "grand narrative" "postmodern condition" does not leave us with any space for any kind of objection. Otherwise, we would be called "terrorists".

The rise of anti-foundationalism and the proliferation of [post]modernism "coincide" with the rise of theories of the end of history and social classes, and the claim that "late capitalism"[1] is different from classical capitalism. Of course, the emergence of the prosperous late capitalist society as studied by Mandel, has been marked by "accelerated technological innovation, permanent war economy, [and] expanding colonial revolution" (Mandel, 1974:15), all of which are factors which have led to the transfer of the main source of monopoly surplus profits from the colonial periphery to the imperialist centre, and have made the multinational corporations more independent from the banks and finance capital which characterized monopoly capitalism. However, this is a society which still has the basic elements of classical capitalism.[2] Mandel lists some of the long-term forces that characterize the basic contradictions of this late capitalist society, among which is "the growing dissatisfaction of producers and consumers" with their alienation and estrangement through consumption of commodities that give less satisfaction and "stifle" more basic human needs; the contradiction between "wealth" in the west and "hunger" in the "Third World"; the contradiction between the creativity of science and the horror of the nuclear war (1974:16). Instead of integrating the working class, contemporary capitalist society has alienated it more than ever in the sense that it is not only told how to produce but also how and when to consume and think: "[contemporary capitalism] tries to alienate the worker even from his consciousness of being alienated, of being exploited"(1974:18).

However, the automation process has played a major role in reshaping the working class as defined by Marx; whole new layers of social forces have been incorporated into the working class, and at the same time a big sector of the working class has been incorporated into the middle class. That is, the highly skilled workers and technicians working in computerized factories cross the class border between the blue-collar/manual production worker and the white-collar clerks. In other words, as Mandel puts it, "if we examine the long-term trend, there is no doubt that the basic process is [different from Lyotard's analysis] one of growing homogeneity and not of growing heterogeneity of the proletariat"(1974:20). Since the difference in income and consumption between a labourer and a clerk in a highly capitalist society is getting smaller, the integration of students with workers in May 1968, then, becomes understandable. Put differently, the stratification that takes place in a late capitalist society does not mean the end of social classes; neither does it mean that we are living in a post-capitalist epoch. Rather, it is a "purer stage of capitalism", a stage in which what Louis Althusser, in a different context, calls the 'State Ideological Apparatus' (1992), which tries to manipulate  and reshape the consciousness of individuals, especially those with revolutionary potential. The retreat and pessimism of the leaders of the May movement, and the loss of belief in any radical and even peaceful change that controlled the intellectual scene in the 1970s and 80s is a reflection of this manipulation.

Whereas Marcuse, Adorno and Horkheimer see no hope in the working class since it is completely manipulated and co-opted into the system,[3] Mandel believes that late capitalism itself "educates the worker to challenge the division of national income and orientation of investment at the superior level of the living economy as a whole" (1974:24). That is, as the living standard of the "new" working class rises with their skills and wages, their attention transfers to more basic aspects of capitalist exploitation.[4] The third industrial revolution, like capitalism in its industrial revolution phase which created its antagonistic class, does create and require a high level of education from workers. These 'new workers' started raising more fundamental questions regarding the use-value of their products, which according to Mandel, found expressions in the slogans of the May movement. This is not to deny "the apparent stability" of the late capitalist society, and by the same token not to deny the social reality of the daily experience of manipulated and oppressed workers, women, blacks, and other minorities. It is understood now that labourers have been integrated with managers, a process which has become necessary for "coping with the crisis of 'alienation' of labour in the high-tech labour force" (Zavarzadeh and Morton, 1994:141). However, this does not mean that class conflict and antagonism between labour and capital are over. On the contrary, the reasons behind their exploitation, though concealed, are still the same; namely the ownership of the means of production by one class and the performance of labour by another, and the extraction of surplus value. Zavarzadeh and Morton go further and argue that "[managers] are an important part of (post)modern capitalism: they foreground (because they do not erase) the proletarization between capital and labor". The importance of managers, then, articulates capitalism's "particular historical shape" (1994:141).

The May events, the English mine workers' strikes in the 80s, the Los Angeles uprising in the late 80s, the demonstrations against the oppression of immigrants in France, and the opposition to the Gulf wars, are all examples of the new socio-political reality that has accompanied the rise of the multinational corporations—even if Lyotard calls it "terror" or "grand narrative". Capitalism cannot thus ensure a decent economic existence for all—not to say majority of—the population even in 'wealthy' western countries. Of course, capitalism has repeatedly demonstrated this quality in the "Third World". As Mandel notices (1978), by the mid-1970, the post-war boom had come to an end and so the economic basis of rising confrontations between imperialist blocs was laid. It is not a coincidence, then, that in the 1980s the first governments openly committed to deregulation and reduction of state intervention came to power, namely Thatcher's and Reagan's governments. However, the question that remains valid now is whether free health and education services, decent pensions and wages, and a lifetime's job security are unrealizable dreams? Put differently, is 'the market economy' inevitable?

Despite all the apparent victories won by neo-liberalism over the last two decades, capitalism has been unable to escape from the long period of mass unemployment, and substantially lowered profit rates which first appeared with the breakdown of the post-war boom in 1974, (Mandel, 1978). The massive waves of technological renewal and the opening up of semi-colonial markets and labour to the multinationals have not helped. Thus, capitalism's search for a long-term solution to its crisis of 'growth' and 'profitability'—as predicted by Marx—has accelerated its "globalization". Globalization basically means the continued growth of multinationals; a massive expansion of foreign direct investment; mergers between multinationals and the economies of nation states; and the surge of speculation on financial and currency markets. To take the issue further, most current trends, i.e. (post)modernism, (post)industrialism, post-Marxism ... etc, are associated with the process of globalization. The intensification of globalization is happening in the context of a new international division of labour and economic integration of national economies, and the concentration of capital at the global level. Moreover, the social policies of the welfare state are being replaced by a new social and economic order based on deregulation, privatization, and the reduction of public subsidies to health and education and of government assistance to the disadvantaged.

Further, a social and economic polarization, within and among countries, grows, with larger portions of income and wealth increasingly being concentrated in smaller segments of the population. Thus, what globalization produces is a deepening of the gap between those who have and those who do not have, not only at the international but also the national levels. Whereas globalization produces the unification of capital on a world scale, it leads to the fragmentation and the division of workers and other subordinate groups. The state's withdrawal from its economic and social welfare roles results in a restructuring of the state-workers relationship, in such away that social wage diminishes at the expense of individual salaries. Society thus is being segmented into two sectors: one protected and included in the model, one unprotected and excluded (see Offe, 1988). What we are now witnessing, then, is not the 'end of history', that is, the ultimate step in human civilization, but rather a return to a form of the nineteenth century classical capitalism in its polarization, intensification of class conflict, and proletarization of different segments of the society. Hence the importance of Habermas's argument with regard to the need for the continuation of the Enlightenment project in order to (re)address the prevailing social Darwinism and neo-colonialism (called euphomatically post-colonialism), and the growing economic polarization, oligopolies, social inequality, poverty, discrimination, unemployment, sexism, and violence.

Social critique is, then, the missing key word that Lyotard’s Postmodern Condition lacks. If all master-narratives are out, one cannot expect much help from theories that have followed "the postmodern condition". However, the pressing human condition and questions of life require the involvement of all possible "narratives".  This is what the critical theorists of the Frankfurt School seem to have understood in their defence of critical theory as a holistic interpretive social theory despite their critique of foundationalism. That is, critical theory departs radically from foundational philosophy, and entertains the radical ideas of Hegelian Marxism. The role of "theory"—as a replacement of philosophy—should be understood as providing a critique of not only culture, but also the pressing questions of life, i.e. society and ideology, a role that will guarantee theory what Habermas calls "legitimation", and what Lyotard rejects as a "narrative of emancipation". By rejecting the reification of social life, critical theory asks how that social world came into being, how it changes, and how such radical changes are influenced or challenged, focusing on equality, justice, and democracy. The fundamental reason for theory's existence should be emphasized: it should not only describe and comprehend the world, but should also offer alternative world(s).

Such self-conscious social critical theory cannot but be a "narrative"—however it should not try to isolate, by its own method, some basic beliefs that are claimed to be foundational. That is to say, it should not claim responsibility and knowledge of one Truth, and a belief that is claimed to be fundamental because it is a part of every human being. But it cannot also be a theory with "no meaning", with no constraints because it is not a "master narrative" (Habermas, 1985). The various philosophical styles of reasoning and historical narratives should not be rejected; on the contrary, they should play a major role in providing "theory" with different paradigms. Such theory cannot exist either without the socio-economic insights of Marx and Engles, or without Hegel, Vico, Lock and Kant, or without Freud and Gramsci, or without Reason and Enlightenment. However, as we have noticed, theories that pay tribute to Enlightenment and Modernity are under severe attack by postmodernism.


Habermas's Project

The conceptions of truth, rationality and knowledge are taken to be a major part of Jurgen Habermas's project of the 'unfinished enlightenment' in that critical theory, within this project, is allowed to transcend relativism and classical historicism. In a move to restore the social critical project of critical theory against the pessimism created by Adorno and Horkheimer—who considered modern knowledge to be a servant of the dominant means of production, and maintained that the Enlightenment finally led to the submission of man to technology and administration (Adorno and Horkheimer, 1972)--Habermas declares that critical theory should critique ideology. According to Habermas, a critical comprehension of cultural and philosophical tradition can identify the ideological underpinnings of "distorted communication" which creates "false consensus" (qtd in Richard Kearney, 1986:223). Habermas's critical theory, despite its affiliations with Marxism, critiques Marxism's stress on labour and production; thus, for Habermas "there is no philosophy that is above critique" (Kearney, 1986:224).

Habermas's dialectical social critique that rejects foundationalism takes into consideration the pressing problems of humanity and tries—like other critical theorists—to pose a challenge to the hegemony of the technology of late capitalist society:

... the development tendency characteristic of advanced capitalism has become increasingly momentous: the scientization of technology ... technical development entered into a feedback relation with the progress of the modern sciences. With the advent of large-scale industrial research, science, technology, and industrial utilization were fused into a system. Since then, industrial research has been linked up with research under government contract, which primarily promotes scientific and technical progress in the military sector. From there information flows back into the sectors of civilian production. Thus technology and science become a leading productive force ... It is no longer meaningful to calculate the amount of capital investment in research and development on the basis of the value of unskilled (simple) labour power, when scientific-technical progress has become an independent source of surplus value ... This technology thesis ... becomes a background ideology that penetrates into the consciousness of the depoliticized mass of population, where it can take on legitimating power ... the culturally defined self-understanding of a social life-world is replaced by the self-reification of men under categories of purposive-rational action and adaptive behaviour. (qtd. in Kearney, 1986:230)


Private corporations, with the state, have penetrated the public and the private realms of our lives, and we have become consumers of political and media spectacles controlled by the state and the corporations (Habermas, 1989).

Modernity, according to Habermas, has developed a discourse that accuses 'reason' of being "grounded in the principle of subjectivity" (1988:55). This objection, or rather accusation, in the discourse of modernity—including the discourse of Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Lacan, Foucault and Derrida—“has not substantially changed". Habermas believes that this accusation is aimed against a reason which “denounces and undermines all unconcealed forms of suppression and exploitation, of degradation and alienation, only to set up in their place the unassailable domination of rationality.” (1988:55-56)

However, "[because] this regime of subjectivity puffed up into a false absolute transforms the means of consciousness-raising and emancipation into just so many instruments of objectification and control, it fashions for itself an uncanny immunity in the form of a thorough concealed domination" (1988:56). Thus, the "opacity of the iron cage of reason that has become positive disappears as if in the glittering brightness of a completely transparent crystal palace". Habermas therefore states that "[all] parties are united on this point: These glassy facades have to shatter" (1988:56). Modernity, for Habermas, is an event of 'self-reflection' and a product of 'self-consciousness' and 'rationality'. Hence the formation of a "subject-centred reason" and a mode of knowledge whose normative 'foundations' exist in its own acts rather than in tradition. Since modernity has always been in a process of seeking its 'self-realization', it uses 'rationality' to defend itself against anything standing in the way of its 'enlightenment', i.e. 'freedom'. 'Self-consciousness' and 'self-reflexivity', as critical devices used by modernity and enlightenment turn against modernity itself. Thus modernity has always contained the 'agency' of its own beyond within its own structure; that is, modernity has always had its own devices of self-destruction. It follows, then, that (post)modernism has always been there, disguised in different forms. In other words, (post)modernism is the product of the modernist historical, dialectical interaction of 'reason' with its 'other'. It is of great importance, in this context, to notice that Habermas's conclusion, which is different to that of poststructuralists, maintains that this 'discourse' between reason and its other responds to social pathologies (1988:290f). Within this context, Habermas goes further to argue, 'the other of reason' does not have the ability to subscribe to any normative view of discourse because it has cast reason itself in a role that fabricates norms and common sense through a 'falsification' of 'difference' in the interest of power.

Moreover, Habermas contends that the "counterdiscourse" that solicits 'the other of reason', i.e. poststructuralism, "can give no account of the normative foundations of its own rhetoric", and therefore it has no claims to make beyond the aesthetic and the subjective (1988:294). That is to say, 'the other of reason' cannot provide a coherent criterion for accepting, or even rejecting, its arguments because such criterion is a part of the regime to be deconstructed. The counter discourse of 'the other of reason' creates a critique of institutions without creating a centre to govern knowledge. Further, the 'counter-enlightenment' succeeds only in reserving the binary terms of its predicaments, which leads it to similar evocations of 'an other' to the regime of thought under study. This 'other' can never be judged because it is beyond reason. Habermas therefore concludes:

…it is directly the vital forces of a split-off and repressed subjective nature, it is the sorts of phenomena rediscovered by Romanticism--dreams, fantasies, madness, orgiastic excitement, ecstasy—it is the aesthetic, body-centered experiences of a decentered subjectivity that function as the place holders for the other of reason. (1988:306)

The discourse of the other of reason, despite its critical insights, falls into the paradox of being subject to the same objections as the case under scrutiny. Thus, it never escapes what it rejects, namely the confines of a "subject-centered thought" (1988:306).

Modernity, enlightenment and reason, according to Habermas, have unfulfilled potential. However, that is not to say that he accepts their oppressive aspects. His dialectical approach while challenging the catastrophe of technology and science also points "to unrealized potential in increasing social rationality, justice, and morality" (Best and Kellner, 1991:237), which can be attained through "undistorted communication" in order to reach, what Lyotard strongly rejects, a "rational consensus" (Habermas, 1979). Of course, by defending modernity, Habermas confronts the (post)modern theorists whom he considers “neo-conservative” and whose "ideas of anti-modernity ... are becoming popular in the circle of alternative culture" (qtd. in Best and Kellner, 1991:237). In his Legitimation Crisis, Habermas studies the chances of social emancipation by briefly analyzing the previous stages of capitalism in Marxist terms. However, he concludes that contemporary society has inherent crises: 'economics,' 'rationality,' 'legitimation,' and 'motivation'. He concludes that an economic crisis in the contemporary capitalist society is inevitable. Steps taken by the state and corporations to avoid it have led to a crisis of rationality and legitimacy in that the questions of control, choice, and distribution have become open. Hence the creation of new legitimizing ideology and the interference of the public sphere in the private sphere. (Habermas,1975:92-3).

The alternative is "an ideal speech situation", created in "the communicative action", where there is a democratic system of communication, with equal chances distributed, and where there is no "distorted communication" (1979).  Communication, so far, has been distorted and even controlled by "unequal distribution of dialogue opportunities which sustain privileged positions" (qtd. in Kearney, 1985:227). What Habermas aims at is the removal of restrictions in communication created by multinational corporations and capitalist governments, in order to reach a practical positive rationalization and reason that help in creating a better world.

"Theory", then, must have, as component parts, theories of truth, rationality, reason, and knowledge. No analytical critical theory can ignore the background theories and principles about social structure, social change, morality, ideology, economy, production...etc. It is a dialectical process and movement between traditional philosophy and new emerging social critical theory that does not restrict criticism. What it should have at its disposal is an equilibrium and dialogue of beliefs through "undistorted communication" without falling into intuitionism and metaphysics. Put differently, it should guarantee the diversity and criticism in social life without any kind of essentialism or apriori epistemology.

Modern Western critical theory has moved radically from Marx's emphasis on the importance of material production in the development of early capitalist society, to Habermas's emphasis on the importance of communication, especially in the late capitalist society. What needs to be emphasized within this context is Marx's formulation of the relationship between economy and social development and consciousness, a formulation that has been developed by the critical theorists among whom is Habermas himself. Marx emphasizes that the mode of production of material life conditions the socio-political and intellectual life of a society; and that (wo)men's social being determines their consciousness rather than the other way around. However, Habermas emphasizes that individual and social consciousness are combined in language (1979:67-8). Language as a means of communication comes out of a social context and implies a social order. The "ideal speech situation", then, is one in which there is no "distorted communication" and in which all participants communicate openly and equally in order to reach a rational agreement and a complete mutual understanding.

Habermas's rejection of the monopoly of power, interests and information in high capitalism, and his defense of the rights of all human beings to think and communicate under undistorted communication circumstances to enhance social and critical change puts him in opposition with radical (post)modernism. His theory of "communicative rationality" aims to combine, or rather harmonize a linguistic with a social theory, a theory whose ideals are those of the Enlightenment, namely democracy, fairness, and justice. This is a theory that is supposed to have no class, race, gender, or even national position, that is, a universal theory. Thus this theory has a communicative reason that is expressed in "a decentered understanding of the world". Further, "the theory of communicative action can reconstruct Hegel's concept of the ethical context of life" through a mediated, intersubjective, rational process of normative argumentation" (1988:315-6).

            Habermas's project of Modernity is, then, a (re)formulation of an alternative critical project to the counter discourse of 'the other of the reason'.

The fight against the disintegration and the rejection of all "grand narratives" is a fight launched against the "cultural logic" of "fast capitalism" (Jameson, 1991, Agger, 1992), a fight to retain an anti-authoritarian totality, a fight to reconstruct a critical social theory. Habermas's notion of the "consensus", Jameson's "political unconscious" and "cognitive mapping", Mandel's theorization of "late capitalism", Agger's "critical postmodernism", Adorno's "negative dialectic", Best and Kellner's "multiperspectival critical theory", Marcuse's theory of the "one dimensional man"—to mention but a few—are all attempts to reconstruct and retain a notion of totality that has systematic and comprehensive aims. One cannot accuse all totalizing narratives of "terrorism"; on the contrary, one, in fact, needs totalizing narratives in order to mobilize the public around different issues of public interest. One, in other words, needs a "master narrative" to understand the context of specific events, experiences and social trends; "to grasp certain empirical trends", "to target centres of oppression and domination" (Kellner and Best, 1991:176), and to criticize a social system as a whole.

Best and Kellner, like Agger, distinguish between an "extreme wing of postmodern theory that declares a radical break with modern theory" and "a reconstructive wing that uses postmodern insights to reconstruct critical social theory and radical politics" (1991:256-7). Like Jameson and the Critical Theorists, Best and Kellner adopt the idea that modern and postmodern positions should be combined together in a way that makes postmodernism accept the "progressive heritage of Enlightenment, democracy, and social theory along with the dubious features of modernity" (1991:257). That is, one should not totally reject the modern traditions but be critical about them. The role of modern social theory in analyzing and even revolutionizing society cannot be easily ignored and rejected. The Marxist understanding and analysis, for example, of the developments of capitalism, the family, the state, the constituents of socio-political domination in the field of political economy and the means of ending exploitation, cannot be rejected completely under the claim that Marxism is a "terrorist grand narrative". All grand narratives do not lead to oppression and authoritarian totality. 

The ideological irresponsibility of some (post)modern theories in ignoring broad social and political phenomena is undoubtedly a reflection of the penetration of global capital in all fields of life, and the disintegration of the liberal "bourgeois public sphere" (Habermas:1989) in such away that the public is excluded from real decision making. That is to say, as a reflection of the disintegration of the real public sphere that takes into account the rights of specific exploited classes and nations, (post)modern theories lack a systematic total political and social theory and prefer to deal with micro-phenomena that have emerged as a result of a broad social phenomenon—that is, "late capitalism". However, as Best and Kellner, Jameson and some other Neo-Marxists significantly insist, one should argue for a critical social theory and a combination of modern and traditional macro- and microanalysis. To understand our age, we need both modern and postmodern theories interacting in a way that both contextualize one another, an interaction that dialectically compensates for what each lacks.

            Put concretely, Jameson's calls for the reconstruction of "cognitive mapping" (1988) and the "political unconscious" (1981), and Best and Kellner's call for the "reconstruction of multidimensional and multiperspectival" critical theory that can provide a dialectical analysis of the "relative autonomy of the various levels of domains of social reality and the ways they interact to form a specific mode of social organization" (1991:264) should be the basis for any (re)construction of radical critical theory associated with (post)modernism.



an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

 Volume 4, May 2007, ISSN 1552-5112




         WORKS CITED

Adorno, T and Horkheimer, M. Dialectic of Enlightenment. New York: Herder and Herder, 1972 (1944).


Agger, Ben. The Discourse of Domination: From the Frankfurt School to Postmodernism. Illionis: Northewestern University Press, 1992.


Althusser, Louis. "Ideology and the State". In Modern Literary Theory: Reader. Philip Rice and Patricia Waugh (eds). London: Edward Arnold, 1992.


Best, Steven, and Kellner, Douglas. Postmodern Theory: Critical Interrogations. New York: The Guilford Press, 1991.


Freedman, Robert (ed). Marx on Economics. Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1962.


Fukuyama, Francis. The End of History and the Last Man. New York: Routledge, 1994


Habermas, Jurgen. Legitimation Crisis. (Trans. Thomas McCarthy). Boston: Beacon Press, 1975.


__________. Communication and the Evolution of Society. (Trans. Thomas McCarthy). London: Heineman, 1979. 


__________. "Modernity: An Incomplete Project". In Anti_ Aesthetic. ed Hal Foster. Seattle: Bay Press, 1983 (pp 3-15)

__________. "Questions and Counter Questions". In Richard J. Bernstein (ed) Habermas and Modernity. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1985.


__________. The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity: Twelve Lectures. (Trans.) Fredrick Lawrence. Cambridge: MIT, 1988.


__________. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into Category of Bourgeois Society. (Trans. Thomas Burger). Cambridge: the MIT Press, 1989.


Jameson, Fredric. "Forward". In The Postmodern Condition. Jean François Lyotard. The Postmodern Condition; A Report on Knowledge. (Trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi). Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1984. 


__________. Postmodernism, Or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. London: Verso, 1991.


Kearney, Richard. Modern Movements in European Philosophy. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1986.


Lyotard, Jean François. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. (Tans) Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota.


Mandel, Ernest. "Workers Under Neo-capitalism". In The Revolutionary Potential of the Working Class. New York: Pathfinder Press, 1974.


__________. "Revolutionary Strategy in the Imperialist Countries". In The Revolutionary Potential of the Working Class. New York: Pathfinder Press, 1974.


__________. Late Capitalism. (Trans) Joris De Bres. London: Verso, 1978.


Marcuse, Herbert. One Dimensional Man. London: Sphere Books      LTD,    1970 (1964).


Offe, C. "Democracy against the Welfare State? Structural Foundations of Neoconservative Political Opportunities". In Moon, J.D. (ed). Responsibilities, Rights and           Welfare: The Theory of the Welfare State. Boulder: West view Press, 1988.


            Rorty, Richard. Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.


Said, Edward Representations of the Intellectual London: Vintage, 1994


Shusterman, Richard. “Postmodern Aestheticism: A New Moral Philosophy”. In Theory, Culture, and Society London: SAGE (vol 5. 1988, pp 337-55).


Zavarzadeh, Mesud and Morton, Donald Theory as Resistance: Politics and Culture after (Post) structuralism New York: The Guilford Press, 1994.



[1] The term, though used by Ernest Mandel (1978), is considered “unsatisfactory" by Mandel himself "because it is one of chronology, not of synthesis". However, he could not propose a better term for this historical era since the term "neo-capitalism" is ambiguous in the sense that it implies "either a radical continuity or discontinuity with traditional capitalism" (1978:9).


[2] In the introduction to Late Capitalism, Mandel writes:

... it should be plain that class struggle between capital and labour, the role of the bourgeois State and late capitalist ideology, the concrete and mutable structure of world trade, and the predominant forms of surplus-profit, all need to be incorporated into any account of the successive historical stages of capitalist development, and of the contemporary phase of late capitalism itself (1978:8).


[3] They believed that in the reign of technological rationality in a post-World War II capitalist society (wo)man has become a machine of repetitive production and consumption. And humanity is thus brought down to "regulations" and "administration". The individual is completely divorced from a genuine social participation in a concrete historical situation. The mass submissiveness is, according to Adorno and Horkheimer, the logical counterpart of the domination implicit in the rationality of enlightenment (Adorno and Horkheimer, 1972, Marcuse, 1970).


[4] The late-capitalist advanced industry, in other words, needs a more skillful labor capable of "abstract thinking" (Zavarzadeh and Morton, 1994:137). Abstract thinking provides the new labor force with a higher ability to engage in conceptual operations that are essential to high-tech.