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  • From the Third Republic to Postmodernism: Language, Freedom, and the Politics of the Contingent
  • Gilbert D. Chaitin (bio)

1. Trashing the Universal

In recent years, critics and theoreticians who identify themselves as belonging to the political Left have increasingly embraced what Cornel West has termed “the new cultural politics of difference,” whose distinctive features he characterizes as the tendencies “to trash the monolithic and homogeneous in the name of diversity, multiplicity and heterogeneity; to reject the abstract, general and universal in light of the concrete, specific, and particular; and to historicize, contextualize and pluralize by highlighting the contingent, provisional, variable, tentative, shifting and changing . . .” (West 1990, 19). An important segment of feminist thought has participated in this movement, as can be heard in the call which Julia Kristeva issued in 1979, in “Women’s Time”: “the struggle is no longer concerned with the quest for equality, but, rather, with difference and specificity. . . . in order to discover, first, the specificity of the female, and then, in the end, that of each individual woman” (Kristeva 1986, 196). Luce Irigaray has put the negative case in forceful terms: “Any universal [other than that of the natural economy] is a partial construct and, therefore, authoritarian and unjust. . . . Our identity cannot be constructed without a vertical and horizontal horizon that respects that difference between the sexes” (Irigaray 1991, 205). As Sandra Bermann has recently concluded, American feminists have been, if [End Page 780] anything, even more radical opponents of the universal, more com-mitted proponents of the particular which grounds cultural diversity in “specific feminist histories, in which differences of race, religion, class, ethnic group and sexual preference are foregrounded” (Bermann 1990–91, 105).

Edward Said has denounced the cultural imperialism of nineteenth-century orientalism that privileges “vision” over “narrative,” by which he means the universalizing and reifying categorization of the colonized designed “to wipe out any traces of individual Arabs with narratable life histories” (Said 1979, 229), eliminating both sensuous particularity and historical contingency. And while François Lyotard finds that it is narrative—the grand Enlightenment narrative of human emancipation—which effects universalization, the thrust of his critique of modernism is to open a path toward “little stories” which would preserve the identity of minority groups or colonized cultures (Lyotard 1991). For Homi Bhabha, “the aim of cultural difference is to rearticulate the sum of knowledge from the perspective of the signifying position of the minority that resists totalization” (Bhabha 1994, 162). In this stance we can hear echoes of the Lacanian valorization of the non-narcissistic Other as well as of the deconstructive critique of that philosophical notion of truth as presence which acts to marginalize and ultimately to repress difference. Shoshana Felman has summarized Jacques “Derrida’s . . . critique . . . of traditional philosophy,” in the assertion that “Western metaphysics is based on the totalitarian principle of so-called logocentrism, that is, on the repressive predominance of ‘logos’ over ‘writing’ . . .” (Felman 1993, 22). Others claim that the totalitarian principle has arisen not from western metaphysics in general, but more specifically from the “Enlightenment’s universalism and rationalism.” In “Feminism, Citizenship, and Radical Democratic Politics,” Chantal Mouffe has described these twentieth-century attacks on “the idea of a universal human nature, of a universal canon of rationality through which that nature could be known as well as the traditional conception of truth” (Mouffe 1992, 369–70).

Although this vilified abstract universal has many “Others”—concreteness, particularity, individuality, specificity, multiplicity, plurality, marginality, difference, to name a few—I have chosen to concentrate on another one, contingency, both because it has played the key role in the evolution of the political and literary value attributed to the oppositional pair, and because in its philosophical usage it has two important universals as contraries. To take the second [End Page 781] point first, as attribute contingency is opposed to the notion of a unique essence that would define identity and thus found truth; and as chance occurrence it contradicts the idea of necessity, and therefore of a universal meaning or history. As to the first point, it is Jean-Paul Sartre who, starting from La Nausée, gave the philosophical term literary currency precisely by conferring upon it a...

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