viernes, 19 de septiembre de 2008

Against Historicist Hermeneutics

Our epoch’s ethical orientation can be best summarized as that of an avowal of a hermeneutic understanding of human nature, and of a restriction of the notion of politics to the sphere of cultural conflicts. This hermeneutic understanding begins by opposing itself to the modern univocal conception of human reason and nature by which we could safely judge different propositions, cultures, historical periods and forms of life. Thus, in a somewhat post-modern fashion, the hermeneutic orientation begins by pairing the Nietzschean suspicion against universal truths with the hermeneutic historicism proper to Heidegger or Gadamer, in order to delimit the methodological principles prior to ethics or politics. Since reason and truth are context-sensitive, it follows that an ethical questioning seeking to incorporate multiple cultures must avoid reductionisms to any one particular conception of reason, and must rather be receptive to understanding the plurality of discourses and forms of life in their dignified difference. What we have all in common is that we are all in fact different, unique individuals, in a world sharing various cultures, customs and idioms. In this sense the hermeneutic vision accepts reason as the democratic tribunal for the pacified exchange between distinct cultures in the common project of mutual understanding and of an effective politics. We may thus speak, following Badiou, of an equation between philosophy qua the discourse of the being of truth and democracy. The democratic principle tells us that all individuals and cultures are free to participate in the dialog of ethics or politics, and present their own views and opinions. Furthermore, it asserts that no subject is in principle excluded from the opportunity to participate in the dialog of reason, and so (in Badiou's language) the axiom of 'equality of minds' proposes a tribunal of practical reason which welcomes the alterity of Otherness in its fullness, and escapes the dark destiny of metaphysics once and for all.

A forgetfulness of this democratic principle, or so the hermeneutic story goes, follows to the barbarities of violence, discrimination, struggle, and war. Evil is seen as a continuation of the metaphysical violence of an ethnocentric conception of reason and is thus equated to non-democracy. If we fail to obtain a hermeneutic understanding of truth, we fold back into the metaphysical violence of onto-theology, the elevation of an entity or being into the rank of God, or supreme guarantor of knowledge, and thus to the horrors proper to totalitarian terror and the non-democratic excesses of power. Against a representationalist conception of truth which sees the intellect as mirroring the world and the task of reason as proving a singular unifying discourse about the real, a hermeneutic conception sees truth as the structural worldview proper to a peculiar culture and historical time. Against the metaphysical understanding of ethics which sees practical reason as the transparent tribunal to the universality of the Law, the hermeneutic version anthropologizes ethics in favor of a contextualism of tolerance, admitting the plurality of cultures and ways of life in their own dignity. In sum, whereas the old metaphysics identifies reason with similarity and the supression of alterity by seeking foundations, the hermeneutic worldview sees alterity as foundational for identity. It rests on accepting alterity by first accepting the radical finitude of our being and the openness of truth for human thought. By historicizing truth, the task of reason becomes fusion (in Gadamer’s sense) rather than reduction, multitude rather than foundation, the openness of contingency as opposed to the closed spectrum of universality or necessity.

The multiplicity of cultures and forms of life is accepted and protected under the banner of democratic freedom. To the axiom of equality of minds we may thus supplement that the anthropologization of ethics in our times proposes an axiom of equality of cultures. Not only are individuals free and ends in themselves qua individuals, like Kant proposed, but all cultures and traditions share this integrity as well. The fascination of our contemporary notion of human rights, for example, seeks both to secure the liberties of the individual as well as those of the forms of life he/she integrates; the individual is to be protected as the one who harbours the historical truth of his time and of his freedom to participate in a distinctive way in a world. We can thus summarize this principle along Badiou in saying that for today's political ideology there are only bodies and languages, only individuals and cultures.

Since the hermeneutic orientation of thought assigns no ontotheological privilege to any one conception of reason or truth, there are no available procedures to disavow an ethical position in principle. Ethical truth can only attain the rank of universality, paradoxically, by accepting the possibility that the objectivity it claims for itself is not transitive to other situations. So in this view the ultimate horizon for ethical truth is in fact the democratic openness to dialog and discourse, always relative to culture and history. More than a plain relativism in which all judgments or opinions are equivalent, the axioms of equality of minds and cultures value the recognition of plurality and thus equate evil to the denouncement of Otherness, or what amounts to the same here, to non-democracy.

I would claim that this democratic fetishism found in the hermeneutic understanding of ethics goes even further in its dialectics. Not only are individuals and cultures equal in principle, but it is precisely because the ultimate horizon for the understanding of intersubjectivity is found in the historicizing of truth that an individual ought to be free to live in the way he chooses. The universality of freedom of choice supervenes on the ethical neutrality of the choices one is free to choose from. The individual must be protected because he harbors in his life the truth of his own freedom. Since the hermeneutic view opens its tribunal to all cultures and forms of life, to all debates and questions, then freedom of choice and expression can be safeguarded under the banner of democratic legitimacy and protected from the tyranny of totalitarian terror.

The consequences of this view are far reaching and obviously complicated for these purposes. I will try to summarize what I take to be four of the most important results of the hermeneutic vision of the world, drawing from the works of Badiou, Zizek and Agamben:

1) Procedures of constructive politics are expected to not exceed their situational dimension. This is to say that a local project in politics should not be construed in such a way that by its criteria and formulation, its effects are transposed to other situations in which such criteria might not be assumed, validated or wanted. The universality of human rights will safeguard the independence of nations and cultures, and thus condemn traditional revolutionary politics as acts of barbarism and all acts of violence as in principle reprehensible. The localization of truth within a democratic framework neutralizes all revolutionary attempts to oppose this democratization as acts of irrational violence against the sovereignty of freedom, democracy and human rights. As Badiou puts it "The return of the old doctrine of the natural rights of man is obviously linked to the collapse of revolutionary Marxism."

2) Since within the historicist dimension reason cannot exceed the admission of the multitude of ways of life, political procedures are assigned to culture as the cornerstone for ethico-political debate. Politics and ethics are seen as tantamount to questions about cultural/ethico/religious/political freedoms, rights of cultural minorities, ethnic groups, and so on. The inability to exceed local situations entails politics must remain intra-situational, and thus confined to expert-knowledge and specialization. There are no longer truly political questions to overlap with ethics, since there is no longer the aspiration for a new common body of politics beyond the fusion of distinct horizons in cultural dialog. Cultural difference takes the place of the political by becoming the body of a human ethics, an ethics of cultural democracy.

Democracy in this way substantializes cultures as the objective bodies which participate in the political process of politics. Thus the preservation of multiculturalism entails that whoever opposes the democratic vision of the rights of man (Muslims, fundamentalists, communists, terrorists) is excluded, criminal or tyranical. To assert as a principle the fundamental opposition to another form of life, to be intolerant to the Other is to err, to sin, to violate. Tolerance only for those who tolerate democracy. (This entire procedure of human rights can be read in the succession of wars in the name of democracy which took place during the 20th Century as part of the crusade for ‘freedom’).

3) Individuality or particularity is more important for politics than equality or universality. The imperative to respect and conserve alterity qua the plurality of ways of life and cultures, as well as the rights of the individual to freely act, compete and develop him or herself within the democratic framework exceeds the consideration of whether there is in fact equality in the situation admitted by assigning politics to culture. The priority of freedom over equality is equivalent to the priority of enjoyment over justice. The emerging result can be viewed, as Badiou has pointed out, as that of a monstrous inequality within our Western countries and especially outside them, suggesting that “…maybe this absence of justice is the price we have to pay for freedom.”

4) As Slavoj Zizek has remarked, the old Aristotelian logic of the right measure is replaced by the injunction to enjoy as part of the constitution of the free subject. We obtain the equation identity equals freedom and freedom equals the freedom to enjoy. The freedom to affirm one’s roles and identity presupposes the availability of cultural elements and identities as something one can legitimately purchase or claim for one’s own. The objectification of culture into the object of politics is adjacent to the objectification of cultural symbols as the currency of the economy in which subjects effectively participate and in which they are constituted as such. Within capitalist market dynamics this takes the form of the radical purchase of traits, products and symbols, i.e. from fashion statements, to medical implants, to the new-age obscurantist search for trans-cultural experiences, ‘food-court’ ideology, and so on. By the same token, the exclusion of an individual from the socio-political process is tantamount to the limited access to the resources of this identification; the excluded are in fact those who are not free to enjoy and to define themselves through the assimilation of a unique identity. It thus becomes a case, to run once more along Badiou’s terminology, of a nihilistic democratic materialism, i.e. the radical purchase and disposal of all bodies. The nihilistic disavowal of meaning in the world is supplemented by the injunction of the emancipation of the individual, the call of self-creation and freedom through the elevation of the living body and the aspiration to enjoyment. It is thus both a biopolitcs of life adjacent to the hedonist creed; the excess of enjoyment is but the obverse supplement of the denial of meaning, or hedonism is the obverse of nihilism.

Once our metaphysical shackles have been loosened, the individual can in fact participate in respectful democratic dialog: he no longer seeks reductions but admitts plurality, he asserts his own position but is equally tolerant to the Other. Within the dialectics of democratic materialism, the ethical neutrality of the roles one assumes allows the constant production of roles and symbols to remain in circulation to guarantee the possibility of genuine subjects. On the other hand, the hermeneutic promise for an impartial world in which horizons are fused and in which tolerance abolishes violence easily becomes suspect once the long succession of wars under the banner of democratic freedom and human rights is put to the test. The dialectic of multicultural understanding proposes a dialog between different cultures in which the integral limits of each agent are effectively ‘fused’ or ‘expanded’ through some diplomatic procedure. To review, the obscenity of this lax logic of understanding can be roughly sketched argumentatively as follows:

a) Truth and reason is context-dependent, and not univocal or subsumable under a singular ideal of reason (anti-metaphysical foundation).

b) An ethical program that seeks to fairly consider the views and opinions of other cultures and individuals cannot begin by imposing/transposing the conceptual structures of one culture to the other, since this amounts to ignoring the uniqueness and distinctiveness of each culture.
c) Ethics thus amounts to a process of dialog in which each identity affirms itself in its radical uniqueness, the prospect of a reduction betrays context-dependency; one can at best hope for a genealogical anthropology in which the views and language of the Other are respected in their uniqueness.

And yet the promise of a democratic sphere of dialog is substantiated amidst the violence of the Western world through the very unclear notion of a ‘fusion of horizons’. We claim respect for the Other does not amount to the suppression of difference, but the admission of his radical alterity. And yet this alterity remains entrapped in regurgitating the old anti-Metaphysical slogan that reverberated in Nietzsche’s thought, announcing the death of God; or through Heidegger as the death of metaphysics. The slogans of tolerance and multicultural dialog effectively dismiss how it is to one standard that the freedom to enjoy grants respect and bows to: the democratic one. To Zizek’s challenge “Would we say Hitler was perceived as an enemy of humanity because we didn’t hear his own side of the story?” the democratic trend of thought reiterates “No! precisely because Hitler represented a totalitarian power we can say that only through dialog and democracy we can reach ethical truth for which the name is justice.” But if it is this sort of justice we take as the destiny of thought and life then we can go along with Badiou to the end and plainly state: no democracy for the enemies of democracy, no freedom for those who oppose freedom. The freedom of culture or choice thus becomes reducible to the following paradoxical qualification to the commandment of freedom: “you are free to do what you want, on the condition that you do the right thing”. The justice is tantamount to opposing the non-democratic world is perhaps too visceral a claim to consider, reason for which the slogans of tolerance and dialog can effectively coat the violence of our times behind the ideologicalfacade of humanitarian nobility.

With this prospect in mind, we can clearly demarcate the democratic project as propagating a culture without believers, a decaffeinated culture. Muslims yes, without fundamentalism, without violence. Freedom of choice, yes, as long as the choice agrees with the democratic principle and its rule. One is free to choose the cultural symbols and roles one desires freely as long as these roles are already deprived of that which effectively separates them from democracy. The objectification of culture is in this way dissolved within the prospect of a globalized world in which horizons are fused; only that those who must pay for our freedom are those whose freedom is unknowingly stepped over.

What is then the role that philosophy plays in this infinitely open dimension for dialog? If hermeneutics wants to go beyond the trivial relativist claim that different situations exist, it must rely in the proposal of an operator of consensus; the 'fusion of horizons' cannot be concentrated in the patronizing gesture of acknowledging alterity. The formal requirement that philosophy imposes is that of a criterion for objective consequences, criteria for the rational discussion to emerge. The problem then does not come in the inoffensive plea to recognize the Other, but in determining the conditions under which reason must be capable of disagreeing. Put somewhat differently, one can say the task is proposing constructive criteria which restrict what can be legitimately accepted as a respectable position. Instead of avowing an all-embracing prospect of tolerance unconsciously submitted to the rule of democratic freedom we must be ready to contest the democratic fetish. Along with Zizek, we can agree in that tolerance functions de facto as its opposite; the rule of tolerance is not the abolishing of rules, but precisely making the protection of individual liberties from harassment the priority for the State. And it is indeed only within the liberal equation of happiness to the purchase of identities within a cultural idiom that we can fundamentally oppose the non-democratic vision of the world. This obsession for a 'respect for the Other' can perhaps then be exemplified in the Anglo-Saxon qualification preceding any affirmative proposal: 'in my opinion...'.

We can safely dispense of whatever completes such claims inside a purely relativistic framework; but hermeneutics seeks more than that. The 'fusion of horizons' seeks the democratic agreement and expansion of views through a peaceful exchange in dialog. And yet beyond the fascination of alterity, the democratic world restricts the free exercise of the views which it neutrally considers. No democracy for the enemies of democracy. No freedom for the enemies of freedom. The barbarity of this circular logic should appear less compelling now than it did to vulgar skepticism. The problem seems thus that once we go beyond the 'deconstruction' of the ethnocentric modern conception of reason, and the genealogical reconstruction of Otherness through the hermeneutic method, we still lack the means to construct a new logical framework for the construction of a prescriptive new politics. Until then, the 'fusion of horizons' might appear as the helpless obscurantist chant of philosophers, extending the historicist romanticism which readily unveils but does not confront. The obsession with enjoyment and the terror of violence can thus safely continue its course without any threat from the theoreticians. At least not for now.