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  • Postmodernity and the Politics of Multiculturalism:The Lyotard-Habermas Debate over Social Theory
  • Mark Poster (bio)

Remarkable Changes are Taking Place in the European social and political order concerning East European socialism; the demise of the Soviet Union; the political, economic, and cultural unification in Western Europe; the emergence of ecology as a political question; the transformation of "private sphere" issues into public concerns; the question of postmodern culture; the impact of advanced technologies on everyday life; and the secular trend toward a general globalization of the economy and cosmopolitanization of identities. In this context, social theory is faced with a staggering task of reconceptualization, of treating themes that challenge and stretch the viability of traditional orientations, those of Locke, Mill, Marx, Weber, and Durkheim. Within the framework of an emerging new politics, a stunning controversy between Jürgen Habermas and French poststructuralists has dominated the arena of social theory since the late 1970s.

Despite the acrimony that has characterized the controversy, one fundamental issue unites the protagonists: all agree that social theory must give new priority to language. In The Postmodern Condition Lyotard spoke of language as basic to the social bond, in part as a consequence of the dissemination of computer technologies (15). Similarly, Habermas in The [End Page 567] Philosophical Discourse of Modernity urged a turn to language in social theory. Earlier orientations on society as an arena of actions and a structure of institutions are replaced by a focus on the symbolic level. Lyotard defines the current "postmodern" age as "incredulity toward metanarratives," by which he means the inability of our intellectual heritage to make sense of our present circumstances. In a similar vein, Habermas declares "The paradigm of the philosophy of consciousness is exhausted" and urges a shift to "the paradigm of mutual understanding" (Philosophical 296).

Despite this convergence of tendencies, the differences between the positions far outweigh the similarities. The issues that divide Habermas and French poststructuralists may be gauged by looking at the degree of viability each is willing to accord to past theoretical frameworks in the present conjuncture and the concomitant need each position senses for new theoretical departures. In general French theorists regard the Western intellectual tradition as an obstacle to understanding the present, or more accurately as a discursive structure of domination rather than a basis for a new critical standpoint, while Habermas views their point of departure as a fall into irrationalism. Habermas attempts a reconstruction of historical materialism and aspires to the completion of the Enlightenment project of emancipation. Lyotard, Foucault, Derrida, and other related French theorists signal "incredulity toward the metanarratives of emancipation," predict the demise of humanism, and call for the deconstruction of the Western philosophical tradition. In the one case there is an effort to revise and conserve; in the other an urge to break out in new directions.

This divergence of views has in many cases been acrimonious: Habermas regards Derrida, Lyotard, Foucault, and the rest as "Young Conservatives," and Manfred Frank, more disparagingly, characterizes Lyotard as a "neo-fascist."1 Lyotard for his part has been equally forthcoming: the perspective of Habermas' communicative rationality is "terrorist."2 Advocates of Habermas' position, such as Seyla Benhabib, dismiss Lyotard as "liberal pluralist" or "quietist" (123). While from outside these camps, especially in the United States, it may appear that Habermas and the poststructuralists have much in common and together constitute the main hopes for a renewal of critical social theory, the participants are not at all as sanguine, viewing each other rather as a chief enemy than a potential ally. The single hiatus in the general enmity is Habermas' short memorial essay on Foucault's death, where a somewhat promising picture of Foucault's work is given.3 [End Page 568]

Habermas diagnoses the present conjuncture as a mixture of serious dangers with some hope. The dangers come from the intrusion of "the system" into "the lifeworld" ("Modernity" 8). Habermas accepts the Weberian, Lukacsian critique of modern social institutions as one of increasing differentiation of functions but also of generalized instrumentality. While the system of modern society becomes ever more complex as an articulation of specialization, its mode of practice, instrumental rationality, is homogeneous. In...


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