“Who can honestly make epochal claims about modernity, postmodernity?”

Are we are living in the end times of the narcissism of autonomy—even when we deconstruct autonomy? Many uses of the word “postmodern” set my teeth on edge because in trying to mean too much the word can end up meaning nothing at all. We are postmodern in the sense that modernity is in question to itself, modernity as the epoch in which freedom as autonomy has hugely shaped our reconfiguration of being. You might say: such being in question is part of modernity, but it is part of modernity that can be turned against modernity. I should say that modernity as the epoch of autonomy is twinned with modernity as the epoch of the unprecedented project of univocalizing all being, so far as this is possible. Massive objectification goes with huge subjectification. In that light one can also agree with some who say postmodernism is more a form of hypermodernism than anything else. If so, it is blithely sawing the branch on which it is sitting, happy to sing about the groundlessness of being, in chirpy disregard of its own fated downfall. I admit there is much of equivocity to the situation. There is much critique of autonomy but I would say there is also much of lacerated autonomy or self-lacerating autonomy in this critique of autonomy.

I sense we are like swimmers trying to get out into clear water, but we are always driven back by the waves. Being out beyond: genuine openings to otherness entail a new porosity to transcendence. This means being beyond the idolization of immanence as that greater than which nothing can be thought. Such postulatory finitism, as I call it, is a position impossible to sustain—even as it offers a pragmatic impersonation of the ontological argument for the necessity of finitude as such. Being out beyond: and I don’t mean the easier immanent transcendence but a more robust other transcendence. The two thinkers who come to mind who had an intrepid sense of this are Kierkegaard and Levinas. If Levinas sometimes strikes one as tending to a somewhat dualistic frame, with hints of something like the dialectic of mastery and servitude, Kierkegaard is a genius of dialectical strategy—a dialectical master mastering dialectic of the Hegelian type and bringing it to the point of its porosity to what exceeds it. Interestingly, he said “the dialectical algebra works better,” when considering if Sickness unto Death might also ask for a rhetorical treatment.

If the equivocal ground of postmodernity does open to transcendence as other, the opening is promised through the mindfulness of what is hyperbolic to immanence in immanence itself. These hyperboles of being, as I call them in God and the Between, are signs communicating of God’s own wording of the between—to speak theologically. Perhaps modernity is an interim: before it there was a more living porosity between philosophy and religion/theology, and after it perhaps a renewed porosity is opening up. Perhaps the first porosity was too much taken for granted, whereas the second porosity cannot be taken for granted. And yet it is only open for us, given our readiness to receive it thoughtfully again as granted. The first porosity enabled thought but perhaps was not always thought through. The second porosity comes to thought at the end of its tether, so to say, enabling thought again about the elemental and ultimate things that, in truth, have never left us, and hence can never return, since it is rather for us to turn towards them as always turned towards us.

Who can honestly make epochal claims about modernity, postmodernity? We can be too intoxicated with the dubious grandeur of such claims. We need to turn to the elemental if we are to get a sense of the epochal. Here I speak of the intimacy or idiocy of being, and in the end I think only the personal God a genuine theism can reconcile the singular and the universal in terms of what I call the intimate universal. If postmodernism is still not free enough of the narcissism of autonomy, or is not yet more than autonomy’s self-laceration, the full promise of both the intimacy and the universal have not been understood. I think the latter leads to a sense of freedom beyond autonomy (see Ethics and the Between) in which we are released truly to what is, released too from our own self-encirclement. I am not particularly optimistic on an epochal scale, since we are still trying to encircle the earth in our own self-encirclement. From the glory of God’s creation we are reconfiguring it, in accord with serviceable disposability, as something closer to a toxic wasteland.

William Desmond

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2 Responses to “Who can honestly make epochal claims about modernity, postmodernity?”

  1. brian says:

    I would pair Desmond’s pessimism regarding the ethos reconfigured by self-circling autonomy with some of Philip Sherrard’s work, particularly The Rape of Man and Nature and Human Image, World Image. Stephen Clarke, as well, advocates for an understanding of the cosmos unavailable to those with terminal allergies to “heteronomy.”

    I think the term “lascerating autonomy” is helpful. It reminds me of certain scenes in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. Liza exhibits a penchant for dramatic self-loathing and masochism which Dostoevsky characterizes as lasceration. Desmond implies that the “post-modern” as self-wounding is the dregs of modernity; the naive confidence of Enlightenment now bitterly taking down its once presumptuous confidence, though still tied to notions of freedom conceptually closed off from porosity to the Origin.

    And surely if nominalism still pertains as resistance to the universal as anything more than abstraction, it will take a metaphysics of the person sourced in agapeic love to initiate the meaningful thought of the “intimate universal.”


  2. David Kontur says:

    Brian –
    Thank you so much, your explanation of some of WD’s concepts in your previous post were very helpful.

    Liked by 1 person

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