- ‘Round Dusk: Kojève at “The End”
The postmodern moment has been characterized as one of the loss of legitimacy of the master narratives—social, historical, political; Hegelian, Marxist, Fascist—by which lives were ordered and sacrificed throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.1
The demise of the great story, which gave direction and purpose to struggle and violence, has opened a space for a proliferation of conflicting modes of interpreting and speaking. Of course those modes can only be partial: they can never aspire to the horrifying totalization promoted by overarching certainties. And they will likely interfere with each other, cross over, meld and (self) contradict, because the possibility of their autonomy has been given up; at best we can say that they are “language games” now, rules for representation, argument, and analysis; no longer are they the ground of teleology, satisfaction, and self-certainty.
But there is a problem with this kind of argument, as I see it. It’s not that I do not find it “true,” because of some kind of empirical counter-evidence, such as: the old nationalist narratives still hold sway; history is still slouching toward a goal; history isn’t slouching toward a goal, but it is nevertheless still slouching, etc. One can probably develop all sorts of arguments based on empirical observation concerning the postmodern. Or one can just as easily “deconstruct” the master stories from within, by taking them apart while still, necessarily, acting in full complicity with them (for what “space” could be said to open beyond their margins?). The problem, as I see it, is that this kind of argument is closely tied to the “end of history” arguments that were current in the immediate postwar period, and that have recently had a renewed but highly contested efflorescence.2 This is of course immensely ironic, because philosophers such as Lyotard—spokespersons of the postmodern—have informed us that the possibility of a larger teleology is lost for good, along with the knowledge that flowed from it. But there still is a larger knowledge, after all—the one that proclaims the death of the possibility of a larger knowledge. Whether arrived at empirically or logically, this awareness comes at the end of a series of historical actions and tragedies, and the certainty associated with it is no doubt due to lessons derived from those failures. This history will still have the form of a narrative, albeit one that lacks, perhaps, the power of retrospective justification that characterized the Hegelian model. Its lessons might be purely practical, or they might be derived from a study of the incoherences or contradictions of the earlier paradigms. The net result, whatever the means of their determination, development and (self) cancelling, will be a generally valid knowledge that mandates the end of generally valid knowledges. The language games that proliferate, then, in a postmodern epoch will be allowed and encouraged to do so only because the way has been opened by yet another master narrative: the narrative of the end of narratives. The freedom to be enjoyed by the games is the result of the master story’s knowledge—but, to be sure, the games’ actions, their orientations, will not be determined by it. They will be independent of it—but the preservation of their semi-autonomous functioning is nevertheless the goal of a postmodern theoretical project (such as one that affirms adjudication between different, conflicting, games). Further, it is their guarantee that they will participate in a stable postmodern order: without the postmodern narrative and its powers of harmonization, they would risk falling into particularist discourses into which “nationalist” ideologies are prone.
Is this postmodern version of things that different from a theory of the “end of history” that envisages a State founded on the mutual recognition of free subjects? On the surface, yes: the postmodern view concerns itself not with subjectivity, consciousness as productive labor, and the like, but on the recognition of difference between partial discourses and “constructed” cultures. The posthistorical model seems almost quaint with its emphasis on codified law and the State as guarantor of a freedom identifiable with labor and construction. But beyond these evident differences there...