POLYLOGY: ON POSTMODERN PUBLIC SPACE
University of Trieste
(International Institute of Sociology, XXXII Congress "Dialogue between Cultures and Changes in Europe and the World", July 3 - 7, 1995, Universitŕ di Trieste)
1. From modernity to democracy
By the expression "postmodern society" I mean the process of the progressive separation of democracy and modernity, the progressive emancipation of democracy from modern values.
The claim to universal validity attached to modern culture, to its vocabularies and narratives, is rejected as morally unacceptable and politically illegitimate. The word "demos" in the word "democracy" no longer means "humankind", but the contingent, temporally and socially situated "we", the particular experiences, beliefs, values, institutions, ideals, knowledge and myths which constitute it. No history (or rather story) of these singular historical "we" may be conceived of as a history of human reason or humankind. None has the universal normative validity, even if some of them have acquired great resonance all over the world and become a story of a prominent part of the humankind.
Four stages, I believe, mark this process of the separation of democracy and modernity.
The first is the transition from a multiracial society, to a multicultural society which I consider as the deepest and the most disruptive socio-cultural change of this century.
Modern society is multiracial in the sense that racial and ethnic differences are compensated for by the common belief in the cultural unity of humankind. Culture has a compensatory role which is assured by the intellectuals, who, as J. F. Lyotard put it, "speak in the name of Man, Nation, People, Proletariat or of some other similar entity".
The postmodern condition means, above all, that the compensatory role of culture has expired: "speaking on behalf of Humanity", all humankind-centered discourses, are perceived now as mere rhetoric masking the imperialism of Western industrial civilization which raises its selfish interest to the universal norm of history. The postmodern condition is the contraditory process in which democracy slowly adjusts to the multicultural ideal.
The second stage of separation between democracy and modernity is a direct consequence of multiculturalism: the transition from the idea of justice based on the universality of laws and neutrality of judges, to the idea of justice based on the increase in the capacity to communicate, to translate expressions belonging to other cultural contexts into a common language in order to make them comprehensible in their historical claims to truth. In the postmodern perspective no law is universal, no point of view is objective, no attitude is neutral: we must incessantly ask whose justice, whose truth, whose rationality, whose objectivity. Each judge passes his sentences in the interest of a historical "we" against some other historical "we".
The third stage is the transition from the rationality grounded in the hegemony of scientific language to the rationality (or better reasonableness) grounded in irreducible competition between various idioms and regimes of discourse which continuously breaks all rigid hierarchies of vocabularies and versions of the world. This profound change in our view of science has made less severe the dividing line between literature and sciences to the extent that even science has become a literary genre.
The fourth stage of the coming of postmodern society is the transition from the national state-centered public space to planetary public space, which I propose to call "postanimistic". By this I mean the new cosmocentric rather than anthropocentric version of the world, which is emerging as a response to the coming ecological catastrophe of the planet and is centered on solidarity with life on Earth per se. The new postanimistic public space is based on the narratives which "release Nature from human history" in which it has been held captive by Western anthropocentrism.
2. The democratic imagination: Polylogy
In the third part of his Democracy in America, entitled "The influence of democracy on morality", De Tocqueville examines the relation between the equality of men and their capacity to understand the experiences of others: urged by a sort of "hidden instinct" everyone is touched by the suffering of the others, even if they are foreigners and enemies. His "democratic immagination" puts him immediately in their situation and so he feels their suffering as his own.
In this well-known passage De Tocqueville captured what I propose to call "postmodern democratic legitimacy". It is the "hidden instinct", "imagination putting us into feeling with the sufferers, even if they are foreigners", engaging us intensively in the experiences of other people.
What is the constituent characteristic of public space in the Western tradition? The Rushdie case shed light on the deep relation between democratic public space and literature, that is to say the fact that an essential part of our education consists in learning to read and to interpret the literary texts. What does it means to be educated to the capacity to take a text as literature? This raises many perplexing philosophical questions which we can not discuss here. I will stress only the following aspect: the capacity to take all texts as literature means that our concept of reality is connected to a plurality of texts, none of which has hegemony over the definition of reality. The European way of experiencing the reality, European realism, is connected to this linguistic homelessness of consciousness, to the fact that we are permanently obliged to compare competing regimes of discourse and vocabularies.
Literature is the core of Western public space in the sense that it is not grounded in the hegemony of one language, for example that of science or religion, but in a plurality of vocabularies and regimes of discourse, each in competition with all the others without the possibility to acquire a permanent superiority. I propose to indicate European public space, so strongly related to literature, with the term "polylogy". I coined it on the model of the term "polyarchy" proposed by Dahl in his famous studies concerning democracy, the essential advantage of which is, in this perspective, the competition between a plurality of possible governments. Polylogy means that no hegemony of one language or one vocabulary is able to resist the anarchic will of the people to express their experiences, a will which dominates public space.
We know that the claim to universalism attached to European culture has been rejected as covert imperialism by the representatives of other cultures. I propose to assume polylogy itself as the legitimate basis for the claim to universalism.
Multiculturalism and relativism founder on a sort of paradox: our public space is flooded with the claims to cultural diversity which are formulated in a language able to describe the differences between versions of the world and to explain why we do not understand each other, but what about this language explaining the reasons for this incommensurability? It is necessarily a common language transcending the different regimes of discourse. Donaldson put it like this: «The dominant metaphor of conceptual relativism, that of differing points of view, seems to betray an underlaying paradox. Different points of view make sense, but only if there is a common coordinate system on which to plot them; yet the existence of a common system belies the claim of dramatic incomparability».
A language capable of explaining the differences between versions of the world is a common language endowed with a sort of universality. This language is not the methodical language of science or the revealed language of religion, it is the ésprit literaire, decentralized linguistic consciousness, the competition between different vocabularies and genres.