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Four Fundamental Myths of Postmodern Thought (Or, The Eclipse of the Gaze

A. Kiarina Kordela
Cultural Critique, Number 75, Spring 2010, pp. 1-30 (Article)
Published by University of Minnesota Press

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A. Kiarina Kordela

n the following I address four basic epistemological assumptions that underlie and define postmodern thought. While these assumptions are accepted, consciously or not, by postmodern thought as a priori and unchallengeable truths, I argue that they actually are historically established ideological myths that increasingly premise both mainstream and academic discourses, with specific analytical and political consequences. By postmodern thought I don’t mean any specific trend of thought within the epistemologically and culturally multicolored mosaic of postmodernity, the latter being understood as the era of global capitalism. Rather, I mean any thought that defines itself by precisely the four epistemological principles in question. The first premise of postmodern thought, examined in the first section of the present essay, is the obliteration of the universal as a legitimate epistemological category. This premise concerns not only the postmodern intolerance toward claims to universal representation or universal truth, but also the notorious death of “big theories.” The second premise, an intrinsic corollary to and predecessor of the first, is the notorious death of God, which becomes the object of the second section. The next section deals with the third premise of postmodern thought, that things in themselves are without meaning or value. The last section addresses the fourth premise, according to which— although nothing discursive is supposed to be without meaning or value—relativism is treated, knowingly or not, as precisely meaningor value-free. Finally, as the subtitle implies, all four premises of postmodern thought are different manifestations of denying one and the same epistemological function: the gaze.
Cultural Critique 75—Spring 2010—Copyright 2010 Regents of the University of Minnesota




Crucially, the point in critiquing these four cardinal cornerstones of postmodern thought is not to make a call for a return to a prepostmodern epistemology and its values—for example, with regard to the first premise, a return to the primacy of the universal and a disregard of the particular, or, with regard to the second premise, a return to religion, and so on. Rather, the intention is to reveal the epistemological and political presuppositions and consequences of these often uncritically accepted truisms, and thus reformulate them as the proper premises of the postmodern thought at hand. This is only a precondition for subsequently rethinking and assessing—a task left to the reader—which of these premises, or what of their aspects, one may want to discard, revise, or accept as they are, depending on one’s epistemologico-political proclivities.

Among the various ways of approaching the relation between the particular and the universal, I think that in the context of specifically postmodern thought, Fredric Jameson’s reconceptualization of “allegory,” as presented in The Geopolitical Aesthetic, is a pertinent starting point.1 Jameson focuses on the fact that in late capitalism, the economic corollary of postmodern thought, the globalization of economic and power relations raises a hyper-awareness of the fact that the world order as a whole cannot be represented, and that, consequently, in our attempts to represent it we are always limited to representing only a partial and local phenomenon. Crucially, however, any such representation of the local (particular) always entails, Jameson argues, an “allegory” or “hypothesis” about the universal, the totality of the world order. This is why “all thinking today is also, whatever else it is, an attempt to think the world system as such” (Jameson, 4). Whether our thought analyzes this or that aspect of contemporary society and culture or, for that matter, any other historical period or culture, it always also attempts to represent the unrepresentable, that is, our “world system as such.” By referencing specifically “allegory,” Jameson invokes the distinction between symbol and allegory. While a symbol is a fixed signifier

“it is as establishing . they are presupposed in our representations of the local. as Jacques Lacan puts it. and generations of other philosophers from the Enlightenment to modernism. “nothing is gained by having been persuaded of the definite verisimilitude of this or that . ideological. then we should focus on the part. far from reflecting the “truth” of the world order.2 This insight. from Kant’s own examination of the transcendental preconditions of pure reason in its universality. since allegory is an arbitrary representation of the world order. from producing bodies of knowledge that treated their object in its universality.FOUR FUNDAMENTAL MYTHS OF POSTMODERN THOUGHT 3 (or narrative) organically linked to the concept (world order) that it stands for. seconding Jameson. Let us pause here to note that epistemology has been conscious of the fact that the totality of the world order is not representable at least since Immanuel Kant. an allegory is an arbitrary signifier (or narrative) that is no more justified in representing the world order than any other signifier or narrative. postulates. hypothesis: but in the intent to hypothesize. hence. Unquestionably. whether explicitly or not. for. This. however. The postmodern discourse seems compelled to act according to the logic that if we cannot represent the whole. undermines this logic by pointing out that the representation of any part presupposes and entails. A fortiori. in the desire called cognitive mapping [of the world order]—therein lies the beginning of wisdom” (3). to dismiss such allegorical hypotheses. . we must do so precisely insofar as they lie. This is why Jameson concludes. I argue. What is specifically postmodern is not the consciousness of the impossibility of representing the world in its entirety but the transmutation of this insight into the central principle that organizes postmodern discourses so that. . which now must be examined in its local particularity. for however arbitrary and ideological they may be. And since all postmodern representations of the world order are by necessity allegorical. however. and justifies an overall dismissal of “big theories” in favor of the fragmentation of the cognitive object. its hypothesis is arbitrary and. they are lies. Jameson’s reference to allegory. however. all the way up to Heidegger’s and Sartre’s accounts of Being. at one stroke. and hence we must take them into account. a hypothesis about the whole. is no reason. it generates. being both arbitrary and ideological. did not prevent Kant. as is evident throughout.

138).” In film. In Cinema 1: The Movement-Image.” But. The point of view of the first scene is retroactively justified by the second scene as the gaze of this specific character. a certain lie. 15). the point of view of an initially unseen. that we see set up the dimension of truth” (1981.4 A. and even by. I turn to Gilles Deleuze’s two volumes on cinema. we do not know who is supposed to be watching through this window. Deleuze applies specifically to film the Lacanian gaze. One way of revealing an unconscious point of view as normal and regular is that it be retroactively justified as that of an identifiable diegetic character (a conscious point of view). So far it is obvious that in an allegorical discourse—an epistemological paradigm that has given up the possibility of directly revealing the truth about the universal or the world order—truth is relegated to desire (rather than verisimilitude) and is necessarily mediated by and expressed through a lie. As a way of approaching the relation among truth. After a cut. or . therefore seen. Deleuze adds. there is always a larger set. not given. we see a man looking through the window. . element of the first set” (15). This point of view may remain unjustifiable in terms of the diegesis (unconscious point of view). Deleuze concludes. and desire. which he renames the “out-of-field [hors-champ]” and divides into “absolute” and “relative out-of-field. . this is possible only “on condition that it gives rise to . lie. This. Through a window. “is the first [relative] sense of what we call the out-of-field: when a set is framed. Cinemagoers are very familiar with this phenomenon. we watch a domestic scene. and which can in turn be seen. or another set with which the first forms a larger one. KIARINA KORDELA itself in. the out-of-field or gaze manifests itself as the specific point of view of the camera that does not belong to any diegetic character. but such unjustified points of view are “subject to a pragmatic rule which is not just valid for the narrative cinema: to avoid falling into an empty aestheticism they must be explained. but. I am now returning to the initial thesis advanced here. they must be revealed as normal and regular” (1991. A given set of unjustified points of view can be justified only if it turns out that it is after all “the point of view of a more comprehensible set which includes the first. in order to pose it this time as a question: Why is (some hypothesis of) the whole necessarily presupposed in any representation of the part? To respond. as we watch.

of communicating with another. Deleuze continues. The character who watches through the window can become visible only under a new gaze. “the visual image has a legible function beyond its visible function” (15). etc.”—and this ad infinitum (16). must also be justified as someone’s gaze. The absolute gaze (whole or universal) exists and can be represented only in its effects on these relative gazes (the local). one which cannot even be said to exist. Deleuze continues. justifiable relative gazes (the local views). 253). the other not—but the one cannot exist without the other. and not in itself. The “two aspects of the out-of-field. in turn. which is necessarily realized. there is the [legible] gaze” (1981. 16–17). 17). which is no longer a [closed] set and does not belong to the order of the visible” (1991. Conversely. . Thus the nature of the visible whole (be it a film or any other mode of representing the world order) is open or undecidable insofar as this whole entails and presupposes an absolute out-of-field. but rather to ‘insist’ or ‘subsist’” (17). The absolute or (since it is unrepresentable) unconscious gaze is thus only indirectly pointed to through the representable or visible. which. to infinity” (Deleuze 1991.” albeit only “elsewhere. Hence.FOUR FUNDAMENTAL MYTHS OF POSTMODERN THOUGHT 5 a new out-of-field. This reduction to infinity. Reducible to quantitative infinity are only the gazes of visibility. but beyond them lies the absolute.” whereas the absolute out-of-field of legibility “testifies to a more disturbing presence. universal gaze. to ex-sist (2002.3 By this absolute gaze. once again in Lacan’s words. an absolute “thread [gaze of legibility] which traverses sets and gives each one the possibility. The two are of different ontological status—the one being representable. and this ad infinitum.” so that the relative “out-of-field [of visibility] designates that which exists. “the closed system [shot] opens on to a duration which is immanent to the whole universe [film]. qualitatively infinite gaze of legibility. to one side or around. reminiscent of Derrida’s concepts of “framing” and “grafting. relative gazes are represented without presupposing such an absolute. or. to invoke Lacan’s words again: “if beyond [visible] appearance there is nothing in itself. 103).” the absolute and the relative. “intermingle constantly.” points to an absolute gaze that is impossible to represent within the shot field. or. Deleuze concludes. however—and this is our point here—it is impossible that the local.

the gap between gaining nothing and gaining something of “wisdom. on the other hand. has been one of the oldest epistemological principles. far from being new or specific only to postmodern thought. the gaze that desires this hypothesis to be the “adequate” representation of the world order. which inevitably entails an equally representable—whether or not it is explicitly represented—(ideological) hypothesis about its own whole (its own absolute gaze). however. there is always a particular metalanguage.” referred to by Jameson. whether we claim to represent the local or to attempt to represent the whole. In other words. does not mean that there is a metalanguage— a narrative that would lay bare the absolute gaze under which we could map adequately (i. KIARINA KORDELA Consequently. being that it prefers to remain unaware of the fact that this is what we are doing. We are always constructing “big theories. Since we cannot directly represent either the universal absolute gaze or the whole. This intrinsic relation between desire and truth means that. The value of the hypothesis lies not in its representational truth (its adequate description of the world) but in the desire (gaze) that it reveals. It only means that each arbitrary hypothesis of the world order is possible and gives the impression of verisimilitude only under its own particular absolute gaze.. throughout Christian theology. of course.6 A. at least since Plato’s time.e. a particular absolute gaze underlying any particular narrative (lie) as its own arbitrary universal hypothesis (desire) regarding the world order. while on the one hand there is no universal metalanguage. .” with the distinct characteristic of postmodernism. converges with the gap between our being persuaded of the verisimilitude of our hypotheses and the recognition that we can be persuaded of the verisimilitude of any given hypothesis only insofar as we are under an unconscious gaze that makes us desire it. All this. It is precisely because of this intrinsic relation between desire and knowledge (truth) that Lacan argues that “desidero is the Freudian cogito” (1981. 154). nonideologically) the world order. As Blaise Pascal writes. in which the path to knowledge passed thorough the transferential love between student and teacher. we are always constructing allegories of the totality of the world order. all we can represent is a partial allegory. The cyclical structure between knowledge or truth and desire.

vol. is that this concept of “absolute” or “unconditional love” has increasingly lost its legitimacy as an epistemological category. the mechanism through which the subject acknowledges a proposed claim as truth and. an act motivated by pure love (Augustine. to produce more secular-sounding concepts. the saints on the contrary say in speaking of divine things that it is necessary to love them in order to know them. 8. Opera. as in the case of what we call “absolute” or “unconditional love. (“The Art of Persuasion.” Today this term may have become a buzzword accompanying so-called “Islamic terrorism. which has passed into a proverb. but whoever comes to fill this position. so that the subject identifies with it only on the basis of an unconditional commitment to it. what facilitates this mechanism is precisely the ungroundedness of the proposed claim. we say that it is necessary to know them before we can love them. § 3) Here Pascal reformulates Augustine’s maxim: “non intratur in veritatem. The conventions surrounding the grounding of truth in the post-Enlightenment era simply preclude the admission of “unconditional love” as its ground—hence the need today. further. nisi per charitatem [one does not enter into truth except through charity]. such as the unconscious and the gaze. beyond and above reason. historically this “other” shifts.” or in the postmodern parlance. as “unconditional love.” that is. their worst sin has for years now been crystallized as “fanaticism. let alone postmodern. This is why postmodern thought can see only in the “other” the function of the gaze—which then it immediately translates in presecular terms.FOUR FUNDAMENTAL MYTHS OF POSTMODERN THOUGHT 7 in speaking of human things.” but many still .” in Pascal. identifies with it as his own truth (see Althusser). if we want to account for the circularity between truth and desire. the fact that the claim in itself is inconsistent. “fanaticism.” As we know. and that we only enter truth through charity. in order to account for the difference between the presecular and the secular. Far from being rational argumentation or other circumstantial evidence. book 32. modes of thought. It is no accident that Pascal was a major influence on Louis Althusser.” that is. Contra Faustum.” What must be added here. chap. however. the thinker who articulated systematically “ideological interpellation. The postmodern reluctance to acknowledge the universal hypotheses underlying its local representations amounts to its reluctance to acknowledge the function of the unconscious gaze in its claims to truth. 18).

in a more pessimist vein. what comes next? Many have argued. for no one can know what the effects of the recognitions of the ungroundedness . It is no accident that as late as 1989. 41). But when he returns home he encounters Mr Stern. including occasionally the same people. which. whose children play with his. and so on. 49) The point is clear: there is a primacy of the absolute gaze over the visible gaze(s). makes empirical evidence to the contrary ineffective. have also argued.” or can we acknowledge it with regard to our own ideologies? And the further question then becomes: and if we acknowledge it with regard to ourselves. in the mood of an Enlightenment-type optimism.” Nazi anti-Semitism: Let us . The question is. . you understand Marx because you are a Communist!” (1989. but this position suits me fine. Does not this everyday experience offer an irreducible resistance to the ideological construction? . . his neighbour: a good man to chat with in the evenings. . that is a basic feature of the Jewish nature. into an argument for anti-Semitism: “You see how dangerous they really are? It is difficult to recognize their real nature. He is bombarded by anti-Semitic propaganda depicting a Jew as a monstrous incarnation of Evil. so who needs a basis?” It would be an error to side with either position.8 A. . Slavoj Žižek cited the following line from Marek Kaniewska’s 1984 film Another Country: “You are not a Communist because you understand Marx. the great wire-puller. however: can we see the operation of this logic only in the “other. [The devoted anti-Semite’s] answer would be to turn this gap. this duplicity. KIARINA KORDELA recall the Cold War. Žižek turned further to an older example of an “other. in order to make the point about the circularity between truth and desire as clear as possible to an audience of postmodern sensitivity. take a typical individual in Germany in the late 1930s.” An ideology really succeeds when even the facts which at first sight contradicted it start to function as arguments in its favour. (1989. To stress the point about the irrelevance of reasonable argumentation and circumstantial evidence. the opposite: the acknowledgment of the ungroundedness of one’s ideology may as well lead to cynicism: “I know there is no basis for my position. They hide it behind the mask of everyday appearance—and it is exactly this hiding of one’s real nature. this discrepancy itself. Many. that the acknowledgment of the ungroundedness of one’s ideology should lead to its collapse. when we are interpellated by a specific ideology.

in order not to be deceived there must be some other perfect being that shows me truth and not illusion.” SECOND MYTH: GOD IS DEAD To address this myth. imperfect. all “seculars. as Lacan has argued. namely.5 What appears to be a linear deduction is in truth a circular reasoning that presupposes what it purports to prove: “I can be . 131 [“Third Meditation”]). such as when one cannot be certain whether one’s interlocutor is telling the truth or attempts to deceive. a malign spirit that conspires against us and always deceives us. would necessarily entail a discursive shift regarding the terms in which the postmoderns. and “the natural light teaches us that deceit stems from some defect” (Descartes.” would thenceforth have to engage in dialogue with the “nonseculars. Moreover. however secular the latter may be. I turn to another aspect of Jameson’s argument about the necessarily allegoric representation of the world order. Descartes would have remained unable to prove that his perceptions are not deceiving him without eventually taking recourse to the guarantee provided by God’s benevolence: if I am deceivable and. secular reason entails a “social dialectic that structures human knowledge as paranoiac” (2002. God must exist.” since “He” alone is perfect. The sole certain thing is that such a recognition of the necessity of absolute faith as the sole ground for any ideology. and for that matter. of course.4 The term “paranoiac” is. This is evidenced in Descartes. 5–6). This is not an endorsement of “conspiracy theories” but an acknowledgment of the fact that. and defines all of our allegories or hypotheses of the world order as “conspiratorial” (3). meant here not as a clinically pathological state but a structure invading “normal” subjectivity. hence. for only God “cannot be a deceiver. I say specifically “secular” because reason becomes structurally paranoiac only once it begins to ground truth—up to and including the truth of the existence of God—on itself rather than on God. Having introduced doubt as to whether God is a benevolent spirit or a genius malignus. the fact that he introduces it in the context of his analysis of conspiracy films. therefore. whose thought is symptomatic of all secular reason.FOUR FUNDAMENTAL MYTHS OF POSTMODERN THOUGHT 9 of one’s ideology may be within a specific historical context.

including. structuralist thought. is (at least potentially) his. is not a seen gaze. the question is how to decide how to proceed—keep pursuing him or not—while not knowing? Not unlike Descartes. . “the gaze I encounter . . he becomes too shy to even speak to that person? Which of the two interpretations of his attitude is deceptive and which is true? The proper answer. presupposes the transcendental ego with which it integrates itself” (40). the person I secretly desire never directs a word to me whenever I show up. is that I cannot know. KIARINA KORDELA certain only if there is God. one of these two gazes.” that is. apparently nonmetaphysical. a function that is “opposed to the absence . too. but a gaze imagined by me in the field of the Other” (Lacan 1981. there must be perfection. he will. I cannot act unless I imagine that one of the two desires (for me or not). beyond my imperfection. my further decision. and instead makes sure to keep himself busy with somebody or something else? Is he doing this because he can’t stand me or because. depends on a choice between two arbitrary (truly blind) beliefs: either the man in question desires me (or. And even in the most rational. as is known. 84). the boudoir). as Kojin Karatani puts it. zero. Just as Descartes’s further project depends on his arbitrary choice between a malevolent and a benevolent God. in my everyday life. “[s]tructure .” The fact that secular reason in Descartes’s aftermath would gradually cease to make explicit references to “God” does not change this fundamental structural necessity of (paranoiac) doubt and the need for a supra-rational guarantee against it. Whether the question concerns the (universal) objective existence of the world or somebody’s (local) desire. Certainly I cannot know. at least. my decision presupposes a guarantee that cannot be offered through either evidence or reason. If structuralists eventually “abandoned the ego” this was only “because they had discovered . What can give me certainty when. when he desires somebody. . . The universal and the local share the same structure. perhaps. therefore there is God.10 A. . the more accurate way of putting it would be the inverse: this necessity for a supra-rational guarantee emerges everywhere because so-called “abstract philosophical speculation” takes place everywhere. if I keep pursuing him) or not. . therefore. of course. Nor does it mean that it is only in abstract philosophical speculation that this necessity for a supra-rational guarantee emerges (though.

is. . 59). thus. and further to Deleuze’s rhizomes— necessarily fail to do so. what kind of metaphysics we produce depends entirely on grasping what the structure of the “proxy of God” can be in a properly secular thought. and poststructuralism (Deleuze 2004. For. for instance. antistructuralism. without presupposing any “proxy of God. that our truths do not deceive us. thereby reconfirming the impossibility of ridding themselves of the “proxy of God” and.” as a specific school of thought.” Karatani concludes.” yet another that “zero is the proxy of God. . Therefore. on the other.” which guarantees the structurality of reason. that is. The transcendental guarantee beyond and above the structure of reason itself. hence. Nevertheless. our new task thus far is double: on the one hand. So it is crucial to specify what this “proxy. 174).FOUR FUNDAMENTAL MYTHS OF POSTMODERN THOUGHT 11 of any number whatsoever” (41). if approached through a different methodology. of escaping metaphysics (see Karatani. Deleuze’s statement that “structuralism is inseparable from a new kind of transcendental philosophy” applies equally to nonstructuralism. The “zero sign. even as “proxy” presupposes the absence of a “real” God. “guarantees the structurality of structure and. and.” another that the “transcendental ego is the proxy of God. therefore. [but] God is unconscious” (1981. exists merely as a proxy of God or the transcendental ego” (41).” is the “proxy of God. Which is why Lacan argues that “the true formula of atheism is not God is dead . to show more extensively that the object of the present discussion is not “structuralism. As we shall see in more detail below. thus.” which so far here has been designated as the unconscious or the absolute gaze.” Karatani’s point is the exact opposite. that the “monarch is the proxy of God. arguing that all methodologies attempting to escape structurality—from Christopher Alexander’s architectural project of the “natural city” to Jacques Derrida’s différance. whether we call it “zero” or “unconscious” or “absolute gaze. it is one thing to say. the above argument applies only to methodologies classified as “structuralist” in the narrow sense of the term—as when one speaks of structuralist anthropology or linguistics—and that consequently.” and so on. to specify the nature of the “proxy of God” that pertains to what is . the part could be represented without entailing a hypothesis about the whole and. particularly chapters 4–7). Here one may be tempted to infer that.

and that no one classifies as “structuralist. such as that a hammer is used in order to hammer a nail. 150). and in an immanent relation to. if not philosophy altogether.” so that “interpretation operates in being toward a totality of relevance which has already been understood” (1996. any other being that it encounters in the world. . Dasein would be incapable of “seeing” an object in the first place. How is it possible that Dasein understands and interprets a thing before having first seen it? As Heidegger himself puts it in one of his typical rhetorical self-interrogations: “If any perception of useful things at hand always understands and interprets them . 150).] by interpretation. as opposed to the object. To pursue both tasks simultaneously. all this has already happened at the moment of the encounter. Dasein does not first see an objective presence (there is a wooden rectangular object on the wall) that it then understands. “would be a misunderstanding of the specific disclosive function of interpretation. and so forth.” that is. but it is required to recall that his starting point is Dasein: the being of a being-in-the-world.” for “[i]nterpretation does not . Being-in-the-world indicates the “totality of relevance. “[t]hings at hand are always already understood in terms of a totality of relevance. and finally relates to extrinsically (as a door). a door in order to enter another room. a name many associate with the end of metaphysics. . . prior to any perception and interpretation. This.” that is. interprets. interpret it. 1927. for “what is encountered in the world is always already in a relevance. as a house?” (1996. KIARINA KORDELA properly secular metaphysics.” The “relevance” of the thing is not produced. . . but a being that emerges along with. 140. the in-orderto of any being. . it is not an objective presence but a “being-in-order-to. .” a “being-as that which can. throw a ‘significance’ over what is nakedly objectively present and does not stick a value on it”. 1927. .” In short.12 A. I turn to Martin Heidegger. In encountering objects. does this not then mean that initially something merely objectively present is experienced which then is understood as a door. the usefulness.” It is not the place here to lay out Heidegger’s entire phenomenological ontology. but only “made explicit[. not a transcendental ego or even an isolated subject. Heidegger says in response to his own question. 140. as this specific object of use or of taking care of. if it did not already understand it. that is. and relate to it immanently.

150) In other words.” far from being bestowed to us from the heavens or from some Platonic kind of innate knowledge. “still operates in the common knowledge of human being and world?” (1996. Traditionally. in Karatani’s words. foresight. Beings which. 1927. 1927. . 141. 152).” as Heidegger admonishes us. The “proxy of God” is nothing other than this “circle. 143.” or. Well. 143. are concerned about their being itself have an ontological structure of the circle” (1996. as being-inthe-world. the point about the “proxy of God” lies in understanding precisely that the “’circle’ in understanding belongs to the structure of meaning. that is. 1927. even to ‘feel’ that is an inevitable imperfection. 1927. As Heidegger puts it: When the particular concretion of the interpretation in the sense of exact text interpretation likes to appeal to what “is there. pre-given with fore-having. and fore-conception”—all of which Lacan condenses in the concept of the gaze—so that “[i]nterpretation is never a presuppositionless grasping of something previously given” (Heidegger 1996. fore-sight. “to see a vitiosum in this circle and to look for ways to avoid it. 141. . is to misunderstand understanding from the ground . . “But. which is necessarily there in each point of departure of the interpretation as what is already “posited” with interpretation as such. the “fore” or “a priori” is an a posteriori—therein precisely lies the circle. (1996. of interpreting “something as something. 152). “it is nothing but the self-referentiality of the structure” (45). how should it then produce scientific results without going in a circle. 1927. especially when the presupposed understanding.” is essentially grounded on a presupposed understanding. 150). both science and logic include among their most “elementary rules” the assumption that “the circle is a circulus virtiosus” (1996. leading Heidegger to a further rhetorical question: “But if interpretation always already has to operate within what is understood and nurture itself from this. 153). This is all the more evident in interpretation in the traditional hermeneutic sense of the word. The paradox of interpreting any part of the world. textual interpretation.FOUR FUNDAMENTAL MYTHS OF POSTMODERN THOUGHT 13 This conclusion makes the circularity of the argument conspicuous.” what is initially “there” is nothing else than the self-evident. which for Heidegger involves “fore-having. fore-conception. 143–44. that is. undisputed prejudice of the interpreter.

in his rather influential article “Cultural Studies: The Two Paradigms. debates. On the contrary. needs to be framed lest its intentions be misunderstood. which is another name for self-referentiality. We must not be mislead to believe that. The absolute gaze is another name for the unconscious. But regardless of what terms and theoretical edifices one may want to employ. “[w]hat is decisive is not to get out of the circle. In 1980. and all are another name for the “proxy of God”—the rationally lacking ground of truth. dialogues. I have proposed here the concepts of the unconscious and the absolute gaze as means to do so. in order to introduce the distinction between “culturalism” . particularly as it comes right after my discussion of the necessarily metaphysical character of any structure. 1927. 153). Without claiming that these are the sole concepts to do so. And “big theories” or universal hypotheses only articulate the unconscious (or “proxy of God”) of local and particular representations. made by Stuart Hall. because today our theoretical edifices and everyday judgments do not ground their truth in “God.14 A. THIRD MYTH: THINGS-IN-THEMSELVES ARE VALUE-FREE Another widely presupposed postmodern premise is that things in themselves are without inherent meaning or value. This assumption seems to derive its possibility from Kant’s initial separation of the thing-in-itself from appearances (representation). but to get in it in the right way. but it would be impossible without a further slippage between the two functions of the verb “to be.” as existential and as a copula. 1961). KIARINA KORDELA up” (1996. to take into account the self-referentiality of our truths.” they therefore do not presuppose an unconditional and (rationally) ungrounded commitment to a claim to truth.” Hall drew on Raymond Williams’s two definitions of culture (Long Revolution. such as rights.” that is. the importance lies in not ignoring that one cannot interpret even a hammer or a door—let alone conspicuously more ambiguous things. struggles. I will here turn to a statement representative of this position. 143. laws. conferences—without this a priori–a posteriori self-referentiality. In explicating the falsity of this assumption. But my reference to Hall.

a constant representation of black people in the media as violent is plausible only under the gaze that presupposes that “black people = violence. the professed intention of the article was to synthesize the two camps. In his video presentation Representation and the Media (1997). or unconscious) gaze. or cultural theorist possibly say something about anything in the world without presupposing a view of the entire world? Thus. Hall concludes. I don’t see what in principle could prevent them from being aware of their implications regarding the universal.” because. Meaning. and one that is not. and it is as such that I will address it. but that’s . and hence identity.6 But I would argue that the statement “Nothing meaningful is outside discourse” may be misleading. the spectator’s own gaze. however. through identification between spectator and image.. as Hall argues. the Kantian: the world exists (i. whereas the statement “Nothing is outside discourse” is false. it is between an approach that is aware of its implications regarding the universal. In this sense. Hall argues that the statement “Nothing meaningful is outside discourse” is true. there is no meaning outside discourse. in the example to which I shall presently turn. the distinction between the two is in the first place untenable. 731).e. therefore. how could the sociologist. In fact. absolute. am not addressing Hall from the position of the “structuralist. we are not idealists (just as Kant was not one either). His argument is unambiguously correct in its latter aspect. there is something) regardless of the meaning we make out of it or of whether or not we make meaning out of it (i. but what is outside discourse—the gaze—is the precondition of any possible meaning. If I see a valid distinction.e. namely.” And this gaze can become. unless it is supplemented by the (legible. is not fixed (it is not fixed what “black” equals).. Turning to a concrete example. Hall is evidently concerned with a major universal epistemological claim. regardless of our representation of and discourse about it). see also Fekete. for me the juxtaposition “culturalism– structuralism” constitutes an artificial dualism. Indeed. And regardless of what the actual practice of so-called “culturalists” may be. I. anthropologist. If one cannot say what a hammer is without presupposing a meaning of the entire world. Although Hall’s primary affiliation was the “culturalist” side.” with the intention of either cooperating with or opposing “culturalism. as the preceding section made clear.FOUR FUNDAMENTAL MYTHS OF POSTMODERN THOUGHT 15 and “structuralism” (see Hall 1980.

then there is what occurs diachronically. the media succeed in fixing the meaning of black people as violent. As Žižek writes. 54) Like anything that presupposes a diachronic direction. a signifier that Lacan calls Master-Signifier. . which is language as a simultaneous system of structured groups of opposition. hence. Rather.16 A. a direction that is defined in a linear manner. By representing black people as violent. exactly as when we say: the thing-in-itself exists. Power attempts to fix a meaning on what lies outside of discourse: a power. and which is excluded from the rest of the signifiers. Meaning-neutrality is not an ontological category.” Meaning is in any case introduced into the world through human thought. hence. KIARINA KORDELA precisely what power attempts to do. or a black woman—is meaning-free is a thought-centric projection onto the thing in itself. (Lacan 1993. a telos. the concept of meaning-free or meaning-neutral is a category pertaining to the perceiving subject and. The question arising then is: Under what conditions can the human subject transcend all ideologies and perceive the world as meaning. The verb “is” is here purely existential. the Master-Signifier “brings about the closure of an ideological field by way of designating the Supreme . . over time. by definition. One cannot but give discourse a certain direction in time. a white man. Let’s follow his reasoning. discourse is constituted on the basis of an exception. so to say the thing-in-itself—whether a chair. without any possible attribute after this verb. Lacan had introduced a distinction between language and discourse: Firstly. there is a synchronic whole.or value-neutral thing (the mere fact of being black). not a copula that can link the thing-in-itself to any attribute. precisely. so that the latter forms a closed totality with. and which is discourse. a quality of the thing-in-itself—which simply is.and value-free? Lacan’s response is that this is possible only in the ethical mode of subjectivity—a mode that is only transitory and cannot have permanence within societal formations. It is in this diachronism that discourse is set up. is imaginary and. So. . and hence a teleology (something that. Already in his third seminar. ideological). be it “meaningful” or “meaningneutral. let us make clear what the supplement required to Hall’s argument is. to representation itself.

Truth. regardless of any possible teleology and ideological system of values.” in the kingdom of discourse. crucially. To make the distinction between discourse and language more clear. from the value-free. which he discusses in his seventh seminar. of consequences for others. of destiny. 279). nonteleological perspective of language. and the ideology of the discourse runs the risk of being undermined. By contrast. which designates Antigone’s brother as much after his having become a traitor and fratricide as it did before.). let us turn to Lacan’s example of an ethical act in Sophocles’ Antigone. etc. cannot admit any exception (279). then the arbitrary monopolization of the function of the exclusive signifier by the Master-Signifier becomes evident. King Creon’s decree to not bury Polynices is conceivable only “outside of language. that is. 217). regardless of its historical past. from the perspective of language. when there is no exception.” which determines the meaning and value of the signifiers within the field in question. shared by all cultures in all times. whose sole function consists in safeguarding the identity of a being to itself. for there is no moral measure from which to judge it. hence. so that in the realm of discourse “the being of him who has lived cannot be detached from all he bears with him in the nature of good and evil. or of feelings from himself” (Lacan 1992. that is. Antigone persists in burying Polynices not by arguing that her brother was not evil. then the discourse yields to language. that “one cannot be finished with his remains simply by forgetting that the register of being of someone who was identified by name has to be preserved by funeral rites”—a recognition that. Note that. regardless of its historical past and the value attributed to it by the discourse. once a being bears a proper name. Nation. There Lacan focuses on the proper name Polynices. for it is only there that (ideological) values emerge and. that also the opposition between “good” and “evil” can emerge. while imposing specific moral (ideological) values that dictate its telos (1993. If and when the inclusion of the Master-Signifier within the ideological field succeeds in undermining it. but regardless of whether he was evil in terms of his past history and the value that is consequently . All that remains is the universal recognition. when the “exceptional” Master-Signifier is also included within the set of all other signifiers. By contrast. funeral rites cannot be refused to it.FOUR FUNDAMENTAL MYTHS OF POSTMODERN THOUGHT 17 Good (God.

Commenting on the statement “the strike of Leyland tool-makers today further weakened Britain’s economic position. that separation of being from the characteristics of the historical drama . what the national interest was. democracy. a new discourse. .or value-neutral? Again. KIARINA KORDELA attributed to him by the extant discourse. . The attribution of any value whatsoever automatically brings us back to (the more permanent place of) discourse and ideology. . that cannot pass any other judgment on anything except that everything is without inherent meaning or value. But the new system. The concomitant point that concerns us most in the context of our question—under what conditions the human subject can experience the world as meaning. The ethical act consists precisely in this total disregard of the discourse’s values.18 A. language as a place of enunciation is possible only as a breakthrough. as a transitory moment between an extant-liable-to-becoming-extinct and a yet-to-be social order or discourse. Creon’s acknowledgment of defeat at the end of the tragedy symbolizes this collapse of the old system. . I turn to Hall for an example. In other words. [which] is precisely the limit or the ex nihilo” (1992. the “unique value involved” in Antigone’s ethical contumacy “is essentially that of language . As Lacan puts it. is itself possible only on the ground of a new ideological system with its own values: in short. and ethics is a (transitory) state of subjectivity. .” Hall rightly remarks that this statement “was premised on a whole set of taken-for-granted propositions about how the economy worked. which . which is possible only within the realm of language. Why is it important to know that it is perception or representation itself. were rarely made explicit and were largely unconscious. in its exceptional ethical mode (as opposed to its regular ideological mode). and so on” (1982. . Let us not forget that Sophocles’ tragedy was written as part of the attempts to obliterate the old political system and to establish in Athenian society a new political system: democracy. But experiencing life from the perspective of language cannot last forever. The statement appears meaningful and convincing only under the precondition of a “deep structure” of presuppositions. 74).or value-free—is that language is a (fleeting) place of enunciation. either to those who deployed them to make sense of the world or to those who were required to make sense . that is meaning. 279). and not the thing-in-itself.

g. That is. . any other judgment (e.or meaning-free. and cultural agenda within a society can be value-free. so to speak. is deemed by our epistemology to be an inherent quality of the thing-in-itself.FOUR FUNDAMENTAL MYTHS OF POSTMODERN THOUGHT 19 of it. (74) As a result. then we would also be allowed to continue the statement “things-in-themselves are . Now. the epistemological license to call the thing-in-itself value-free renders impossible any objection to the claim made by any representation of reality that it represents reality as “value-free. in its latter ethical..g. the strike) is precisely proposition. the line of thought presented in this section was. It is important to know that proposition. For if we are allowed to project to the thing-in-itself one thought-centered category. both value-free and nonvalue-free are attributes of representation. Indeed. and that. political. Insofar as no society and no social. because the thing-in-itself only is. for example.” or its counterargument) is by definition ideological. The ethical is the bridge from one (ideological) system of values to another. if our epistemology permits us to say legitimately that outside discourse there are things-in-themselves that are without propositions or values. “good” or “bad”) from being considered as inherent qualities of the thing-in-itself? In short.” by adding any other attribute. .” To recapitulate. and their representations of reality are not value-free either.. with the exception of one point to which we shall return shortly.or meaning-free can be only the ethical judgment that everything (and hence. By contrast. They appeared as proposition-free—natural and spontaneous affirmations about ‘reality’” (74). it assumed. in accordance with the methodology of the argument that it addressed—Hall’s thesis about what there is outside discourse— pre-phenomenological.” a category of thought. “the strike further weakened Britain’s economic position. in a traditional Kantian fashion. “the statements seemed to work. what in our epistemology could prevent other categories of thought (e. In its first aspect it is ideological. the very declarative and descriptive form of the statement rendered invisible the implied logic in which it was embedded. consequently. why not project others too—while at the same time claiming that these are properties of the thing-in-itself and not our (ideological) values? If “value-free. they are not ethical. Only representation can be value-free or nonvalue-free. the truth is that. that the thing-in-itself exists prior to and independently of . by themselves.

192. there is the gaze. which is the gaze. is yet another discursive mechanism—next to the preceding two: the obliteration of the universal and the declaration of God’s death—for obfuscating the function of the gaze. to repeat Heidegger’s words. KIARINA KORDELA the perceiving and representing being. “what is encountered in the world is always already in a relevance. in order to find a point of intersection with Hall’s vocabulary. through our reference to Heidegger’s Dasein as the being-in-the-world. but something understood and interpreted through consciousness as a “being-in-order-to. The thing-in-itself emerges as objective presence first through the process of understanding and interpretation. which we have called the gaze. a hammer] which can [hammer].” thereby implying something more than appearance (the thing-in-itself) (1989. 205–6). But.’ that is. 1927. as became evident in the second section here. that outside discourse there is the thing-in-itself and the gaze. 208). when early on in this section we said. the gaze today is a concept largely employed both in film and . can Da-sein also understand and conceptualize characteristics of being such as independence. ‘essence’ itself is nothing but the inadequacy of the appearance to itself. In other words. . not an independent thing-in-itself. “the Thing-initself is nothing but this radical negativity. . Rather..” because of which appearance appears as “just an appearance. as the very failure or circularity of this process. To repeat Lacan’s succinct formulation: “if beyond appearance there is nothing in itself.20 A.” the sole thing-in-itself (1981. Whence it follows that the thing-in-itself in its pre-phenomenological sense. 103). intelligible in Da-sein. Therefore.’ reality in general” (1996. ‘in itself. FOURTH MYTH: RELATIVISM IS VALUE-FREE Though introduced by Lacanian psychoanalysis in a very specific sense. As Žižek puts it paraphrasing Hegel.” a “being-as that [e. that is. what was really meant is that outside discourse there is the thing-in-itself. independent things out there that are subsequently recognized by consciousness. the thing-in-itself is nothing other than this circularity. there are no objectively present. understood as pre-given objective presence.” A fortiori: “Only because being is ‘in consciousness. .g.” that is. this self-referentiality of understanding to itself.

therefore.” The intention of this statement is to sensitize us to the fact that eighteenthcentury women in themselves were not as they are constructed in these patriarchal texts. At this point we may actually see a resemblance to an ethical judgment voiced. a corrupted. the self-referentiality involved in the production of knowledge and truth. We recall from the first two sections here that the gaze. it is more common than not that one could run into a statement such as “women are represented in eighteenthcentury literature from the perspective of a patriarchal gaze. faulty. not even to a tolerated one” (1996. 143. However true this insight may be. 1927. designates the circle. The reason I preface this section with this reference back to the gaze as the circle that must not be interpreted as an endorsement of epistemological relativism and. the gaze has become a broadly accepted device that relativizes any possible judgment about one’s identity. “This circle of understanding is not a circle in which any random kind of knowledge operates. historically and culturally determined. but always arbitrary. to be a kind of recognition that the “circle” that grounds our truths is precisely a vitiosum. a fortiori. because of which there can be no universal truths. they would be constructed and represented differently. is the fact that the transgression of both “nots” constitutes the ground of cultural relativism— what nowadays is more often referred to as multiculturalism and its cognates—as it is largely understood and practiced today. Even as it is clear that this is neither Heidegger’s point about the “circle” nor Lacan’s point about the gaze. let us for the sake of the argument begin by accepting this multiculturalist premise as valid. statements. often in ways that do not reflect its potentials. that under a different. Thus. at first sight. The presupposition of multiculturalism appears. As Heidegger points out. 153).FOUR FUNDAMENTAL MYTHS OF POSTMODERN THOUGHT 21 cultural analysis. it provides us with a limited knowledge that also runs the risk of reducing knowledge to sheer relativism. nonpatriarchal perspective. and actions. have the same right to recognition. recalling Lacan’s distinction. all claims to . In and through these discourses. The circle must not be degraded to a vitiosum. from the place of language rather than discourse: from the perspective of language. but it is rather the expression of the existential fore-structure of Da-sein itself. all of which. bad circle. truths. not as something that automatically entails tolerance. far from being a synonym of perspective or points of view.

as it is largely understood in the West. they should tolerate our truths. whatever their truths. all truths have equal epistemological validity. The point is that the ethical judgment of the equal validity of any truth does not in itself entail any specific course of action. could be isolationism: if each group of us shares different truths. if all truths are epistemologically equally valid. ‘Eurocentric. condition that this inference is understood as tacitly implying its inverse: “if all truths are epistemologically equally valid. post-Enlightened truth. except one that is the absolute and universal Truth. it opens up the space for various incompatible courses of action. multiculturalism.” The first and most conspicuous. The impossibility of a value-free next step is evident in the simple fact that our assertion that all truths are epistemologically equally valid may give rise to the following two mutually exclusive inferences: first. predicated on a variety of arbitrary values one may infer from the initial quasi-ethical statement. then we should sever contact among groups. “multiculturalism is. can no longer take place within the realm of ethics. if not. In short. to which neither Antiquity nor Christianity nor many other current cultures would want to subscribe. on the contrary. a further one. comes at the next step. which. for example. even if so often overlooked. as we saw in the preceding section.22 A. it should be brute force. as Žižek puts it. So far so good. The leap. all of which are equally valid. we should tolerate other peoples’ truths. they will have either to adjust their truths to ours in order to be tolerated as members of the community. stricto sensu. then the criterion should be non-epistemological. and tricky. and must necessarily be ideological. value-based presuppositions of discourses. for instance. But this latter truth is only a specifically Western. if all truths are epistemologically equally valid. consequence of this Western multiculturalist premise is its imperialist character: other groups can be tolerated only insofar as they themselves accept this premise of tolerance. Of all these courses. KIARINA KORDELA truth have equal rights (not only to burial but to everything in life). appears to subscribe to the first inference—under the crucial. second. then. In short. whatever our truths. or they will not be tolerated.’” For “actual multiculturalism can emerge only in a culture within which . a preference of one truth over another is possible only from the teleological. however. And these two inferences are by no means exhaustive. to which any other truth must subject itself: the Truth that other truths are to be tolerated. then.

communal heritage. . yet flamboyant. in a culture that is indifferent towards itself. underlies also the political system in which multiculturalism was rendered possible: democracy. Democracy is predicated on relativism as a precondition of tolerance. namely: to present “a success story” that narrates “Turkey’s secular road to democracy and modernity” as the “‘model’ or . one of the most recent of which I will summarize here. insofar as it “is the only secular democracy among Muslim majority countries” (27). as long as they play according to the democratic rules (i. “the decline of the Left [was] one of the most important factors in the rise of the Welfare Party to power” (39). The multiculturalist call for tolerance is a disguised manifestation of intolerance toward any culture that is not indifferent to its own specificity.. tolerates every party and religion. which in practice means the separation of the state from religion. While the rhetoric of this statement may make the linkage between “secular democracy” and Islam seem an oxymoron. again. The same tacit. above all. both political and religious democratic relativism and tolerance are. The preface of Toprak’s article promises us that at the end of this “story” we shall know why and how democracy and Islam are far from incompatible—in short. the point of Toprak’s argument is the exact opposite. . supremacy of the Eurocentric truth that culture and tradition are contingent. namely. capable of raising Turkey to a “unique” exception. acceptance of democratic electoral procedures and separation between state and religion). The telling of the story itself requires several comparisons between failed and successful attempts toward the modernization of Turkey. Turkey. Yet. how true relativism is feasible. in Binnaz Toprak’s words. Toprak explains that in the aftermath of “the 1980 military coup” in Turkey. as. marred by the same double-bind that marks multiculturalist tolerance: just as multiculturalism tolerates any culture. appears as contingent. towards its own specificity” (1994. 157). This is why democracy must be secular. ‘example. as the precondition for religious tolerance. that is to say. too. premising multiculturalism. .’ for the rest of the Muslim world” (28). Unlike the Left. as long as the latter experiences itself as contingent.e.FOUR FUNDAMENTAL MYTHS OF POSTMODERN THOUGHT 23 its own tradition. a “unique” case. democracy. Among the abundance of examples one could invoke to clarify this point further. I turn to the case most familiar to me.

In addition to the “first lesson of democracy. . Toprak concludes. the Welfare Party was closed by the Constitutional Court. the Welfare Party “was able to integrate people who had been thus far marginalized by the secularist elite” (40) Thus.” and “the question was being increasingly asked whether a democracy should allow political parties that would end up destroying it” (40). increased the public paranoia” and raised the question of “whether the Welfare Party would abide by democratic procedures or whether the leadership was hiding its intentions that Muslims consider to be their right in hostile milieus.” specifically “in 1997.” Statements such as those by party leader Erbakan.” and “to attribute to the Party a responsible position on the Center-Right. business as usual so to speak. and attending weddings to distributing free food and fuel” as “the poor became poorer” because of the 1980s “cut down” of “state subsidies” (39). The demands and interests in question “ranged from finding jobs.” and Erbakan himself “was banned from political activity. . KIARINA KORDELA Toprak continues. hospital beds .” As a result. “In the end.” Toprak attributes the “major reason . the party eventually proved “unable to play this dual role.” The apparent conflict between the party’s philo-Leftist activities and philo-Islamic discourse raised the concern about “the ‘real’ as opposed to the ‘hidden’ intentions of its leadership. namely. . however.” Reluctance to “abide by democratic procedures” was quickly likened to “the Hitler example. the party “had acquired a following precisely because [it] was more radical on the issue of Islam than the parties of the Center-Right. the success of the Welfare Party had less to do with its image as an Islamist party than with its activities in delivering material goods”—activities that before the 1980 coup would have been considered part of a Left-oriented political agenda (40). from his post as prime minister . “that his Party would come to power by shedding blood.” as “the more the Party was criticized for its discourse on Islam. that it should “be engaged in ‘normal’ politics. . “in sum.” the Welfare leadership had learned the second lesson.” On the other hand. In this way. namely.24 A. to answer the demands and interests of the electorate” (40).” which “the media and public scrutiny of the Party was especially directed at understanding. .” Erbakan was forced to resign . . “the Welfare Party was successful because it had learned the first lesson of democracy. if necessary. the more radical the discourse became.

far from excluding religious belief in Islam.” and the latter for the “right” to “shed blood. we see the secularism embodied by the JDP as “the success story of Turkish democracy.” the fact that “it rests on compromise and consensus. if necessary” “in hostile milieus. on moderate politics. within itself the seed capable of destroying democracy.” which. is “a guarantor of the individual’s right to believe or not to believe in a faith. and instead becomes one among other “movements” within “mainstream . [A] democratic system works best to integrate Islamist movements into mainstream politics. Passing now to the Turkish present since the election victory of the Justice and Development Party (JDP) in 2002. (42) In other words. Islam can be integrated by democracy insofar as it ceases to be the “democracy-threatening” Islam.” and consequently as the source of “political parties that would end up destroying [democracy]” (Toprak.” two incompatible and inimical groups. . 41–42). i. as defined earlier. although Islam bears. Let us pause at the year 1997 to note the classification constructed by Toprak’s rhetoric in her description and interpretation of Turkish politics since 1980. The interplay of freedom of action and its limits in a democracy has a dynamic of its own which leads potentially radical movements to play by the rules of the game. there is no room for relativism and tolerance..e. The cardinal opposition is between the “secularists” and the “Islamists. How is this paradox to be solved? Toprak’s answer is succinct: This history of Islamic political parties in Turkey demonstrates that a democratic environment provides both the platform for the organization of anti-system parties while it forces them to limit their sphere of action and to moderate their ideology. democracy is a system capable of encompassing Islam within itself. according to Toprak’s account. 40–41). So far.FOUR FUNDAMENTAL MYTHS OF POSTMODERN THOUGHT 25 behind [the party leadership’s] defeat” to its “failure to understand the consensual nature of democracy. In other words.” The broader historical result of this defeat was the rapid transformation of “the political arena into a tug-of-war between the secularists and the Islamists” (40–41).” defined as the “moderate politics” of “compromise and consensus. insofar as the former stands for “democracy. . .” just as it is “an enthusiastic supporter of Turkey’s entry into the European Union” (Toprak.

therefore.” If.” that is. as Toprak argues. ‘capitalism-centric. whose tolerance is limited by the criterion of the “rules of its [own] game. KIARINA KORDELA politics” that “play by the rules of the game” of democracy. mode of production” and the “cultural. how to do so through “consent” and “direction” as opposed to “coercion” and “domination” (Gramsci 1985. we shall have to paraphrase Žižek’s conclusion: a multiculturalism or a democracy that plays according to the rules of the game “is. . specifically the mode pertaining to relativism. moral and ideological leadership over allied and subordinate groups”—and. the Turkish democracy of the JDP “stands as an example to the rest of the Muslim world. 104–7. which postulates the relative character of any other truth.” it is because it has finally learned its Gramscian lesson and is now aware that its success depends on its ability to constitute a hegemonic power (42). Thus.” And since the “rules of the game” dictate “mainstream politics. an illusion emerges: “Far from imposing our absolute Truth (of relativism) on the other. democracy’s great feat is its ability to safeguard “mainstream politics” and to integrate any possible challenge by transforming it into a part of itself—or else to ban it as something reminiscent of the “Hitler example.” The above-described mechanism enables this gaze to be repressed—that is. it allows one to forget the absoluteness of one’s Truth. or potentially dominant. the statement that ‘everything is relative’ is the absolute Truth (presupposed for everything else to be relative). This means that democracy has learned how to constitute both the “economically dominant. a politics that sustains the status quo of the capitalist order.26 A. Relativism’s unconscious gaze can be expressed in the following formula: “Everything is relative (except this statement itself). while everything else is relative. 423). stricto sensu.’”7 Here we see the last of the four modes of the eclipse of the gaze in postmodern thought. 1988. that is. above all. Concomitantly. I would also like to thank Professor Cesare Casarino for his valuable input in translating the Italian passages cited in the present essay.” Notes I want to acknowledge Professor Clay Steinman and the two anonymous readers for their insightful feedback. having a limited “sphere of action” and a “moderate” ideology. Multiculturalism is not unlike (Turkish) democracy. we are all equal in our global harmony.

absence of deterministic laws). reason necessarily aspires to represent the world in its totality—something that is never given to experience—because this is its function (as opposed to the function of the understanding whose object is what is given to experience): to attempt to grasp and represent that which transcends experience. which relegates the frame to a subsidiary and inessential role in relation to the painting. . And this is what Jameson’s allegory does. On the other hand. This conclusion. of course.” Norman Bryson compares and contrasts Lacan’s theory of the gaze (qua cause and intent) with that of Keiji Nishitani .” Moreover. and that the frame responds to and signifies a lack within the work itself. side by side. 459–546. On the one hand. reason does not fail. This failure of reason constitutes what Kant calls the “mathematic antinomy. cannot prove that the world is either finite or infinite in time and space because time and space are categories of thought (representation). particularly the chapter entitled “Parergon. A405/B432–A558/B586). that is. to one and the very same thing. See Derrida 1987. see also 1998. 84–85. that is. according to Kant. Here I am referring to Kant’s famous antinomies of pure reason. but in different relations—on one side as appearance. Reason.FOUR FUNDAMENTAL MYTHS OF POSTMODERN THOUGHT 27 1. Kant’s argument is as follows. too: it offers a speculation or hypothesis about the world that it presents as truth. Derrida develops his concept of “framing” in opposition to the thesis put forth by Kant in the Critique of Judgment. reason also fails to represent the totality of causality in the world. see Derrida 1978. insofar as it can prove as truth both the thesis that everything in the world is governed by laws that determine it and the antithesis that there is freedom (i. the fact that the series of the experience that attempts to cognize the world may itself be either limited or indefinitely unlimited in time and space. “no contradiction arises if we at the same time assume or admit both kinds of causality . on the other as a thing in itself” (1977.” his conclusion is that there is no antinomy here. To recapitulate briefly. . indicates that reason assumes that the world is after all representable with regard to causality. 4.” then. §53. it is in the nature of reason to make speculations about the causes of everything in the world and to take these speculations as truths. both in terms of its extension in space and time and in terms of the causes that connect everything in the world. as articulated in the context of the German Baroque tragic drama (see Jameson. Jameson’s concept of allegory draws largely on Benjamin’s allegory. Even though Kant calls this the “dynamic antinomy. for “if natural necessity is merely referred to appearances and freedom merely to things in themselves.” or the production of a new structure in which two separate discourses are sewn together. it is a thesis about the limits of our thought.. Derrida argues that the work is made possible in the first place by the frame. Benjamin). For Derrida’s concept of the “graft.” 37–82.e. reason is necessarily doomed to fail to represent the world in its totality. 3. so that either thesis about the world (thing-in-itself) is in truth a “regulatory” principle of reason itself rather than an “ontological” principle. 2. not of the thing-in-itself. In “The Gaze in the Expanded Field.

if not among the theoretical ones]. insofar as it designates the fact that the subject cannot know the intent or gaze of the Other (the intent of the world order. effected by the introduction of the gaze. On the contrary. as we know from experience.” As the title of his article indicates. I would maintain that the Lacanian paranoiac gaze refers to any gaze.” and declared that “il fascismo è stato un movimento super-relativista [Fascism has (throughout) been a super-relativist movement]. an ardent devotee of relativism.28 A. namely those of relativism]. Bryson argues. Nishitani sees in the decentering of the subject. who in his article “Nel solco delle grandi filosofie: Relativismo e Fascismo [In the track of great philosophies: Relativism and Fascism]. but we know nothing of what they may be in themselves. being a gaze that is not visible. since. se non teoretici. However. a liberating experience. between Nishitani and Lacan lies in the fact that the latter places his accent on a “negative or terrorizing gaze” (105). 84). i. KIARINA KORDELA in terms of the opposition between malevolence and benevolence.’ intesa come scopritrice di verità assolute [the decline of the myth of ‘science. .” classified himself “fra i relativisti. 7. we go on in life imagining at times malevolent and at times benevolent gazes. to which no object external to them in fact corresponds. or. unless.” as we are reminded by Mussolini. as must be Nishitani’s case. Kant distinguishes his position from idealism as follows: “Idealism consists in the assertion that there are none but thinking beings. See also Descartes.. and. malevolent or benevolent. 102–12 [“Second Meditation”]. I may imagine any kind of gaze in the field of the Other. By contrast.” and by relativism he understood all those currents of philosophical thought that aim at “la fine del scientifismo [the end of scientifism]” and “il tramonto del mito ‘scienza. Mussolini enthusiastically saw “il fascismo nel solco delle più grandi filosofie contemporanee: quelle della relatività [fascism in the track of the greatest contemporary philosophies. in Jameson’s terms). the representations which they cause in us by affecting our senses” (1977. almeno pratici [at least among the practical relativists. Of course. unless we are committed to guarding off the possibility that the Other might in certain cases be against us—something whose political consequences seem dubious to me.’ as the discoverer of absolute truths]” (Mussolini. relativism is not limited to playing only according to the “capitalism-centric” rules of “mainstream politics. 6. all other things which we believe are perceived in intuition are nothing but representations in the thinking beings. of course. A major distinction. 32–33). I say that things as objects of our senses existing outside us are given. 267). but a gaze imagined by me in the field of the Other” (Lacan 1981. “it is not a seen gaze. we are clinically paranoiac. knowing only their appearances. 5. at least in Bryson’s account.e. and hence a benevolent function.

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