Modernity & Politics of Exclusion

By Omid Payrow

We have all heard terms like "modernity," "postmodernism," and "critique" in passing and have a vague feeling about what they mean. We know even less about the implications these words may have in our own lives (i.e. as Iranians living outside our native country).

These terms are important, for they represent 200 years of historical/political development in Europe that has great significance for all nations at the dawn of the 21st century and the fast growing move toward globalization. This is an attempt to introduce the modern-postmodern distinction and the possible lesson that can be learned from it for our own experience as Iranians.

The Renaissance in art and literature, the Copernican revolution in sciences, and the reformation debate in church were the context and the points of departure for the humanist ideal of modernity. Together these different movements set up the historical background marking the modern era that started with the Enlightenment.

As a critical questioning of the past, modernity replaced the faith in God, transcendental truth and traditional thinking by a subject-centered philosophy that believed in human beings' capacity to reason.

The French Revolution added an element of emancipation to the humanist background of modernity. The turn from divinity to humanity, from God to man, from faith to reflective reason led to the modernity's philosophy of consciousness centered around the subject. Subject-centered philosophy characterized the Enlightenment in which humanity was to achieve emancipation through maturity by way of giving a critique.

To achieve maturity was to take responsibility for one's judgments and actions based on one's critical reason instead of referring the responsibility to an external agent.

Thus, the humanist ideal of modernity can be described as follows: The belief that essentially benevolent humanity, by appealing to its rationality (universal reason), is on its way of gradual progress toward an emancipated state. The homogenizing tenor of this ideal is indicative of the totalizing effect of modernity's project. That is to say, it did not take long before emancipating rationality itself became a totality with the goal of normalizing differences, a unifying whole with the promise of absolute knowledge.

Since the 18th century, however, the credibility of this project has been seriously damaged by a series of failures, such as Auschwitz, Hiroshima, Halabche. In the face of such horrors, the question that the project of modernity has to answer is this: What is rational about Auschwitz? Or, where is the progress in incinerating hundreds of thousands of people in a few seconds? Does progress mean killing more people in a lesser time?

According to J.F. Lyotard, a contemporary French philosopher, the Republican and Nazi versions of the project of modernity authorize their policy of purification by way of a division between "us" and "them." What gives legitimacy to the totalitarian politics of exclusion and cleansing of differences is the ideal of freedom and emancipation for "us" as Aryan, American, German or whatever.

This ideal's demand is not simply to ask, "Let us become who we are -- Aryans," but to say, "Let us, entire humanity, become Aryans." The universal freedom for "us" is the legitimating norm of any system whose totalizing effect is designed to protect the established state from doubt, a "grand narrative" in Lyotard's words.

In order to safeguarding its ideal, grand narratives of modernity treat its failures with silence and forgetfulness. This, however, will not bring the ideal any closer to its realization, but simply allow the failures to occur again and again.

The silence treatment of Hiroshima today results in ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and further nuclear testing by the French. So we need to remember, anamnesis. Anamnesis is needed in order not to believe in any absolute ideal. We need to remember that the humanist ideal has been defeated. Instead of appealing to a grand narrative to force homogeneity on the world based on our particular ideal, which is the source of the politics of exclusion and its terror and pain, we need to go back to the original idea of modernity, the idea of critique.

Modernity starts off by questioning old values, a critique of tradition. The postmodern claim is that having replaced the authority of myth, religion and morality, reason becomes a totality itself, losing its emancipatory character. In conducting a critique to learn the truth through reason, what is worthwhile to keep is neither the truth nor the reason but only the critique itself. For truth changes and reason is only a tool, but it is the continuous critique that keeps up with changes, diversities and complexities of the world.

A constantly renewed critique of one's regional situations, or what is called genealogy, is our only hope to avoid the stereotype, intolerance and the politics of exclusion. This is the postmodern condition.

The implications of the history of the project of modernity and its defeat are quite evident for us as Iranians. Our history has shown that regardless of the kind of accepted norm at a given time, we are strongly drawn toward homogeneity by means of exclusion and normalization of diversities and extremely hostile toward recognizing the right of what is different. We need to move fast to familiarize ourselves with such a genealogical critique without rushing to create a totality out of it.

Unfortunately, considering the existing conditions in our culture (i.e. fanaticism, dogmatism, sectarian divisions, political dispersion) this is much easier said than done. This suggests that we need to employ a mode through which we can rise to the occasion of the postmodern world.

However, I very much doubt whether we all have realized the necessity of abandoning the humanist ideal of modernity. Until then, any practical attempt to get a new critique of our present situation would miss its point. Thus, a new attitude of critical thinking is needed -- the original theme of modernity. This attitude is what we keep from the past in order to move to the future.

The critique is needed if we want to overcome our problems. Becoming is the way of the universe, shall we actively participate in shaping it or passively let it arrive upon us?

Mr. Payrow is studying for his Ph.D in philosophy at the University of Ottawa, Canada, with an interest in contemporary European social and political thoughts.

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