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  • Postmodernity and Nationalism:A European Perspective
  • Richard Kearney (bio)

It has been argued that postmodern theory can have radical implications for politics.1 One frequently encounters the claim, for instance, that the postmodern critique of the center—as logos, arche, origin, presence, identity, unity, structure, or sovereign subject—poses a challenge to established categories of centralized power. The most often cited examples here relate to the critique of totalitarianism, colonialism, or imperialism. But the list can also be extended to include a critique of nationalism. In what follows I propose to examine how the postmodern motif of decentred power promises to undermine the essentially "modern" concept of the nation-state. The processes of decentralization and dissemination, I will argue, signal the possibility of a political configuration where—in the European context at least—a new form of federalism may be balanced with a democratic form of regionalism. Both of these political forms represent, I submit, radical alternatives to the paradigm of the nation-state as represented by orthodox nationalism.

I begin with a brief exposé of some current theoretical debates on postmodernity before proceeding to a discussion of several of its more concrete implications for the Irish political agenda in the Europe of the 1990s. [End Page 581]

I: Some Theoretical Considerations

One of the most formative contributions to the postmodern critique of centralized power has come from Derrida's subversive reading of Western "logocentrism"—a reading that commonly goes by the name of deconstruction. After deconstruction, we are told, the center cannot hold. The accredited notion of a single origin or end is replaced—or rather displaced—by a disseminating play of multiple meaning. This is how Derrida describes the initial linguistic motivation of the deconstructive turn in his seminal essay "Structure, Sign and Play":

It was . . . necessary to begin to think that there was no centre, that the centre could not be thought in the form of a being-present, that the centre had no natural locus, that it was not a fixed locus but a function, a sort of non-locus in which an infinite number of sign-substitutions came into play. This moment was that in which language invaded the universal problematic; that in which, in the absence of a centre or origin, everything became discourse . . . that is to say, when everything became a system where the central signified, the original or transcendental signified, is never absolutely present outside a system of differences. The absence of the transcendental signified extends the domain and the interplay of signification ad infinitum

(Writing and Difference 280) 2

The translation of this textual strategy of deconstruction into political terms has, I will argue, radical consequences for our inherited ideologies. All totalizing notions of identity (imperial, colonial, national) are to be submitted to rigorous scrutiny in the name of an irreducible play of difference.

Several of these consequences are explored by Jean-François Lyotard in his influential books Instructions Paiennes (1977) and La Condition Postmoderne (1979). Lyotard defines the postmodern turn as a dismantling of "Grand Narratives"—which seek to totalize meaning around a single foundational signified—in favor of what he calls des petits récits or "little narratives." The ultimate reference of narrative (political or otherwise) is not some totalizing center of meaning—call it Party, King, Nation-State, or whatever—but other narratives. These other narratives are multiple. Their difference and diversity cannot be subsumed into an original or final identity. As Lyotard puts it in the conclusion to The Postmodern Condition: "Let us wage war on totality. Let us activate the differences . . ." (82).

This implies the replacement of ideologies of absolute sovereignty—theocracy, monarchy, bureaucracy—by what Lyotard calls "republican principles" of freedom (Peregrinations 39). Lyotard notes in Peregrinations. [End Page 582]

As the common inheritance is more and more measured in terms of the law of freedom, the uncertainty about previously held beliefs increases, and the social network becomes more fragile, insubstantial. . . . In the political field . . . a sign of [this] can be found in the extension in people's mind of republican principles.


To the extent that we can speak here of a political or ethical community, it is one which "always remains in...


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