Saturday, May 28, 2011

Caputo on pomo & relativism

John Caputo has been a major influence on me and has been pivotal in my understanding Derrida, as the latter's own writings can at times (but not always) be inscrutable. The following excerpts are from an interview clarifying what  postmodernism is and answering the spurious charge as to its relativism. I appreciate his clear, concise and easily understandable style and hope that he can answer your own questions along these lines. The excerpts:

Post-modernism is a catchword that has caught on. I use the word “post-modernism” when I want to draw a crowd. So when I run a conference, I always say it’s about post-modernism.

It’s not the best word in the world. It’s a word that belongs to architecture originally. The more technical word, I think, to describe the state of philosophy these days is “post-structuralism.” Which is a critique of structuralist ways of thinking. But let’s just stick with the word “post-modernism, ” and let’s say that modernism means the tradition running roughly from Descartes through the first half of the 20th century. It’s a tradition that recognizes, that draws very sharp lines between subject and object, private and public, professional and amateur, knowledge and emotion, faith and reason.

But when you use the word “post-modernism,” the sort paradigmatic modernist would be Kant, who divides the world up into three critical domains, where the Greek word “krisis” means boundary or divider. So that you have knowledge which is pure knowledge, you have ethics which is pure ethics, and you have art which is pure art. So you get art for the sake of art, ethics as pure duty, knowledge as a purely cognitive undertaking.

And so modernism is very emphatic about drawing borders between things and enforcing those borders, policing those borders. Kant’s philosophy is a kind of meta-philosophy of meta-critique, which is a kind of science of science which polices borders. So it makes for very strong distinctions between subject and object, between politics and between public and private.

What post-modernism is, Jean-Francois Lyotard described as a kind of incredulity with all of that. It just seriously doubts all of that. And in the process, it puts into the doubt the attempt to build comprehensive conceptual systems which count things either with an epistemological bent – the way Kant does – or with a metaphysical bent, the way the German idealists would.

And so Lyotard says it’s incredulity toward all those big stories and rigorous policing of our experience. “Incredulity” is a good word, because it doesn’t say a “refutation.” If you want to refute the position, you need another metaphysics to refute it with, which you see in Kant.

Lyotard says, “Incredulity means we greet it with a yawn.” We just don’t believe that stuff anymore and we’re going to spend out time doing something more constructive. We’re not going to get caught up in those kinds of modernist projects, and we’re going to do things that can be done. We don’t want big stories, we want small ones.

Now, having said that, it’s not to attack modernity. It doesn’t want to go back to pre-modern ways of thinking about things. So it’s a continuation of modernity by another means. It wants to emancipate human thought and inquiry, scientific inquiry, from the hegemony of the medieval and of the church and of theocracy and of this strong theological view of the world, which goes hand-in-hand with a strong theocracy and a monarchical way of thinking about things. That top-down power structure, et cetera.

So everything that modernity tried to dispel, post-modernists also want to dispel, but they want to do it in another way. They want to do it without the overarching, very strong epistemological and metaphysical claims that modernist philosophers embraced.

The kind of dissolving of rigorous, dogmatic distinctions of the sort you see in Quine is quintessentially deconstructive. That’s exactly the kind of thing deconstruction does. Deconstruction, which is my favorite flavor of post-modernism, is a very affirmative operation, despite the fact that it’s about dissolving those kinds of borders, because it’s trying to get at something which the borders tend to close off, and which are blocked by rigorously formalistic conceptions of things.

So it’s way of opening things up, of reinventing them, of giving them a future. The negative tone of the word “deconstruction, ” that it’s grammatically a negation, throws you off. If somebody deconstructs you they’re doing you a favor. But they’re breaking the rigidity of beliefs that are being held too tightly and to fiercely. They want to open you up into the ways in which things can reinvented.

I like this word “reinvented.” Deconstruction is a way to reinvent things. Which means you need something to invent to begin with. You need some kind of tradition, inherited belief, structures, et cetera, which is where you start.

So you start where you find yourself, you start in the middle of things – in media res – in the middle of all the things you’ve inherited: the language which you speak, the time in which you live, your body, your gender, et cetera.

What he’s talking about is a theory of radical reading, radical interpretation, radical practice, which is conservative in the sense that is keeps something going, it keeps it alive. But it keeps it alive by realizing that the only way to keep it alive is to reconfigure it, reinvent it.

So it’s an extremely good way to think about traditions, institutions, inherited beliefs, et cetera because it keeps them on the move. That’s why it has it has a value in thinking about religious traditions because it breaks into religious debates and allows you to open them up, give them a future. 

And so it makes conservatives in the religious tradition nervous. But you’ve always had people who were interested in keeping religious traditions open, and they are in constant tension with conservatives.

As to the charge of pomo relativism, he goes on:

I think it thinks in terms of situational, contextual, pragmatic conceptions of truth. I don’t think it’s relativistic, but I do think it’s relational. It’s very sensitive to the context in which you make judgments. It thinks in terms of the singularity of the situation. It doesn’t think that anything goes, because take this distinction that I referred to earlier, between justice and the law. With someone like Derrida, and I think most of the other post-structuralists are like this, too, they think justice has to do with the singularity of the situation, with what this situation, this context, demands. So, something is demanded of us. We are responsible before this singular situation. There’s nothing “anything goes” about this.

Relativism means anything goes. There’s no “anything goes” element at all here, because there’s the demands that are placed upon me by the other. The other is one of the holy words in this vocabulary right there. There’s all this stuff about the ethics of the other.

So, the other one is the one who lays claim to me, which makes demands upon me. There’s no subjectivism. There’s an alterism or an altruism, an otherness, an other-directedness in ethical decision-making, which is the focus of the idea of justice.

Justice is what the other one lays claim to, demands of me. It’s an ethics of not so much my rights, but my responsibilities before the other, so no relativism. But, what is it that the other demands of me?
Well, it depends. I mean every time someone thinks that they have been done in, been treated unjustly, they say, “This case is different.” And when the law is applied to someone in such a way that the application is injurious, on the one side they say, “This is the law.” And the other side just says, “But, this case is different.”

Well, that’s true. This case is always different. It has a unique, singular, contextual quality about it, so that the law is not disregarded, but the law is reinvented.

It’s a little more like — and this is not an accident because these are largely French philosophers. It’s a little more like a Napoleonic code than the Anglo-Saxon conception of law with whether it’s a theory of legal precedent. There is no notion of legal precedent in the Napoleonic code.

There’s the law, and then there’s this concrete situation in which the law has to be brought to bear. So, the law has to be brought to bear, but there’s an emphasis on the flexibility of the law. There’s no attempt or element of trying to do away with the law, or with obligation or with the demands of justice. But, there is an attempt to be flexible and to allow a maximum amount of leeway in adjusting to the singularity of the situation.

1 comment:

  1. In reading the last post in the 2012 thread at IPS* it reminds me of the Golden Dawn, how when I got to the portal of the inner order and read this stuff I just thought, like Caputo speaking for Lyotard above, I "just don’t believe that stuff anymore and [I'm] going to spend [my] time doing something more constructive." Caputo emphasizes that it's not about doing away with a tradition but merely "reinventing" it. I re-joined the GD over a year ago with that intent but the work is just so contaminated to its core with the metaphysical that it cannot be merely opened up. At least I couldn't do it, instead being drawn back into the same type of new agey, theosophical, apocalyptic and what I now consider nonsense to continue with it, so gave up up again.

    Unless of course what I'm doing here and at IPS is indeed my own idosyncretic way of reinvention. I'm trying ways to include a lot of different schools of though and practice, including my hermetic training, in an individual, singular way. Granted it's not safe and secure like being part of an Order or a Church or a Religion but it's the way I have to go. As in the Caputo thread I am the "singular" situation which is different than all others, while nonetheless being the same in a general way. And I really have no other choice but to be me in this way, to carve my own path through the jungle, and hope that at least in some small way it provides some benefit to those traveling the well-worn byways of metaphysics.



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