Nepantla: Views from South 3.2 (2002) 269-285
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The Social Sciences, Epistemic Violence, and the Problem of the “Invention of the Other”
During the last two decades of the twentieth century, postmodern philosophy and cultural studies developed into important theoretical currents that impelled a strong critique, inside and outside the academy, of the pathologies of Westernization. Their many differences notwithstanding, both currents attribute these pathologies to the exclusive, dualist character that modern power relations assume. Modernity is an alterity-generating machine that, in the name of reason and humanism, excludes from its imaginary the hybridity, multiplicity, ambiguity, and contingency of different forms of life. The current crisis of modernity is seen by postmodern philosophy and cultural studies as a historic opportunity for these long-repressed differences to emerge.
I hope to show here that the proclaimed “end” of modernity clearly implies the crisis of a power mechanism that constructs the “other” by means of a binary logic that represses difference. I also argue that this crisis does not imply the weakening of the global structure within which this mechanism operates. What I will refer to here as the “end of modernity” is merely the crisis of a historical configuration of power in the framework of the capitalist world-system, which nevertheless has taken on other forms in times of globalization, without this implying the disappearance of that world-system. I argue that the present global reorganization of the capitalist economy depends on the production of differences. As a result, the celebratory affirmation of these differences, far from subverting the system, could be contributing to its consolidation. I defend the claim that the challenge now facing a critical theory of society is precisely to reveal what the crisis [End Page 269] of the modern project consists of and to indicate the new configurations of global power in what Jean-François Lyotard has called the “postmodern condition.”
My strategy is first to interrogate the significance of what Jürgen Habermas has called the “project of modernity,” seeking to demonstrate the origins of two closely linked social phenomena: the formation of nation-states and the consolidation of colonialism. Here I emphasize the role played by techno-scientific knowledge, particularly knowledge that emerges from the social sciences, in the consolidation of these phenomena. Later I show that the “end of modernity” cannot be understood as the result of an explosion of normative frameworks in which this project taxonomically operated, but, rather, as a new configuration of global power relations that is based on the production of differences instead of on their repression. I conclude with a brief reflection on the role of a critical theory of society in times of globalization.
The Project of Governmentability
What do we mean when we speak of the “project of modernity”? Primarily and generally, we refer to the Faustian drive to submit the entire world to the absolute control of man under the steady guide of knowledge. The German philosopher Hans Blumenberg (1973, pt. 2) has shown that, at a conceptual level, this project required humanity's elevation to the rank of principal organizer of all things. To attain this power, mankind must fight a war, one it will win only by knowing the enemy profoundly, deciphering its most intimate secrets, so that its own tools may be used to make it submit to human will. This is precisely the role of techno-scientific reason with respect to nature. Ontological insecurity can only be eliminated insofar as we increase our mechanisms of control over the magical or mysterious forces of nature, especially over those aspects of it that cannot be reduced to calculability. In this sense, Max Weber speaks of the rationalization of the West as the process of “disenchanting” the world.
When we speak of modernity as a “project,” we are also principally referring to the existence of a central instance from which the mechanisms of control over the natural and social world are distributed and coordinated. This primary instance...