- Postmodern Communities: The Politics of Oscillation
I. Philosophical Homelessness
Readers of the young Georg Lukacs may recall this memorable citation from The Theory of the Novel: “‘Philosophy is really homesickness,’ says Novalis: ‘it is the urge to be at home everywhere.’”
According to Lukacs that is why “integrated civilizations”—where the soul feels at home everywhere, both in the self and in the world—have no philosophy. Or “why (it comes to the same thing) all men in such ages are philosophers, sharing the utopian aim of every philosophy. For what is the task of true philosophy if not to draw that archetypal map?”1
Needless to say (especially in the [virtual] pages of the present journal) this endorsement of philosophy’s “utopian aim” would not find many adherents today. If anything, the “task” of contemporary philosophy would be to debunk the notion of its universalizing, “archetypal” vocation. The subsumptive mapping of the world by reason is no longer an unquestioned telos of occidental thought.
Today, especially in France, philosophy has addressed itself to a nonappropriative understanding of exteriority, a “thought from the outside.”2 Modern thought has deterritorialized its claims to dialectical resolution; it has become homeless, so to speak, once and for all. Against the grain of philosophy’s utopian memory—its nostalgic stance in being, its nostalgia for Being—the philosophers of our moment urge a “nomadic” thinking.
This sort of generalization about “postmodern” philosophy (such as it is) is well known. Like journalism, it is useful up to a certain point—let’s say until the end of the day. But like all more or less accurate journalistic descriptions it tries to say too much in one breath. Decisive opinions about “postmodern” or “poststructuralist” thought “today” leave the philosophical terrain largely undifferentiated. For example, we might be overly hasty to isolate “poststructuralism” from a certain “homesickness.” This philosophical “malady” (maladie du pays) need not be grounded in a Judaeo-Christian or Romantic nostalgia for lost origins; it might point to a more urgent need to rethink the social constitution of our being. I am thinking here not only of Richard Rorty’s recent attempts to imagine a “contingent” community (a sense of human solidarity not founded on an essentialist understanding of the human, but on an expanding recognition of human sufferance).3
I am thinking particularly of those thinkers (again, largely French) who write explicitly “within” a Heideggerean idiom—or rather, those writers who continue to stage a critical confrontation, an Auseinandersetzung, with Heidegger’s thought. I am thinking, for example, of Jacques Derrida’s recent meditations on spirit, friendship, and today’s Europe; or Phillipe Lacoue-Labarthe’s exemplary work on the aesthetic assumptions informing modern national identity formation (National Socialism). And I am thinking of Jean-Luc Nancy’s extended research on the finitude of our daily, nightly existence—our “being-in-common”—which has given new rigor and new impetus to thinking about what community actually means.
Nancy’s appeal to rethink community could not really be characterized as nostalgic (quite the contrary). Nevertheless, something of the philosopher’s “transcendental homelessness,” the registration of a shared pain or loss, and therefore of a desire, is distinctly audible in these words: “The gravest and most painful testimony of the modern world, the one that possibly involves all other testimonies to which this epoch must answer . . . is the testimony of the dissolution, the dislocation, or the conflagration of community.”4
This sentence could stand as a more or less appropriate epigraph for both the texts under review (more so for The Coming Community, less so for The Transparent Society). Like Nancy, both Gianni Vattimo and Giorgio Agamben address questions of our contemporaneity on a very broad scale. They too write in response to this epochal demand: not to “be at home everywhere,” but to free the very idea of “home,” of a certain belonging, from the planetary administration of techno-economic forces. And like Nancy, both authors draw considerably on Heidegger to articulate not only...