Asking the Question: Kant and Postmodernism?

[This paper was given on December 12, 1999, at the 23rd annual conference of the Northeast American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, on the theme of "Projects and Projectors: Inventions of the Enlightenment," held in Durham, New Hampshire, in a session called "The Place of the Eighteenth Century in the Grand Narratives of Postmodern Theory," organized and chaired by Clement Hawes. My title contains a double allusion. First, the contemporary philosopher Jean-François Lyotard, concludes his book The Postmodern Condition with an essay called "Answering the Question: What is Postmodernism?" His title, in turn, alludes to an essay by Kant that first appeared in a German newspaper in response to an open call for answers to the question, "What is Enlightenment," and that is often translated today under the title, "Answering the Question: What is Enlightenment?"]

One of the great inventions of the Age of Enlightenment is the idea of an Age of Enlightenment itself—which one of its chief inventors, Immanuel Kant, was careful to distinguish from the condition of Enlightenment, in saying that he and his readers did not live in einem aufgeklärten Zeitalter ... aber wohl in einem Zeitalter der Aufklärung (not "in an enlightened age, but rather in an Age of Enlightenment"). Like Derrida, I am in favor of a renewed Enlightenment, and I think that both Kant and Derrida, in a line of thinkers stretching back to Plato, show us the way. In particular, Kant has, or should have, special relevance to those ideas and experiences we sometimes call the "postmodern condition," as, above all, a theorist of paradox, and it is here, I think, that Lyotard, Jauss, and others have found it important to turn from the tradition of thinkers beginning with Hegel and Marx back to Kant. For whereas the Hegelian-Marxist tradition seeks to resolve paradoxes through a temporal, historical process—in Hegel on the level of ideas, in Marx on the level of material praxis—Kant sought rather to define and explain paradoxical structures. Hence reason, for Kant, gives rise to such unprovable ideas and illusions as the expectation that God's existence can be proven and that our good deeds will be rewarded and evil deeds punished—even while reason also enables us to see that God's existence is not eligible to proof, and that rewards and punishments, while they satisfy an idea of justice, cannot serve as a basis for moral action, which must be taken freely, not compelled by carrots and sticks. As a consequence, reason always makes us both believers and doubters at once. Likewise, we understand our actions, when we reflect upon them, as the determined results of causes. But when we act, our action cannot but issue from freedom—so that the same actions are, in the present tense, free, but, in the past, fated. Hence, morally, we are both responsible for our deeds and hapless victims of our determinants. When it comes to moral choices, we know with absolute certainty that we must do the right thing, but we cannot ever know with the same certainty what exactly the right thing is in any particular situation—since the first knowledge is pure and a priori, the second a matter of empirical surmise. In aesthetics, we know that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but it appears to that same eye as if the thing itself were beautiful. Even though there is no arguing about taste, we cannot but argue. These paradoxes are the sorts of things that Hegelian and Marxist logic would seek to undo by means of historical progress. Even though pure and empirical knowledge are not now one, someday they will be; though man and nature are asunder, someday they, along with freedom and fate, will somehow be joined. It is this belief in progress, I think, that Lyotard calls the "metanarrative" of modernity—a story of things getting better and tensions disappearing. Kant's explanations of why paradoxes occur does not remove their tension or "negate the negation" so much as enable us—to put it paradoxically—to make peace with our struggles. A Marxist might well ascribe the very timelessness and universality of Kant's paradoxical structures to his bourgeois provenance and historical moment, but I think that Kant's notion of Enlightenment succeeds in trumping such critical gestures at least as well as they might be thought to trump the Enlightenment.

In order to make clearer my sense of paradox in Kant and of the importance of ongoing Enlightenment, in a Kantian sense, to the postmodern moment, I should like to focus on two typically Kantian areas: morals and aesthetics. In each case, an enlightened recognition of paradox will work against what I regard as dogmatisms—in the case of morals, religious fundamentalism, and, in the case of aesthetics, the confusion of art with communication, a confusion that informs the materialist criticism we call cultural studies.

On the matter of morals, let me begin, in fully postmodern style, with an anecdote. In a powerful television documentary produced a few years ago, Licensed to Kill, an independent filmmaker interviewed a series of murderers of gay men. The convicts expressed moral attitudes toward their crimes ranging from the movingly and deeply responsible to the utterly unrepentant, with various shades of denial and blame in between. At the unrepentant end was one man who explained his deed by insisting that his victim's sexuality "just wasn't right," and that this judgment, as well as the conviction that this unrightness deserved no less a punishment than a swift and trial-free death, were ways of thinking that were "just the way [he]'d been brought up." The upbringing in question, presumably, was some kind of Christian fundamentalism, and the murderer made the predictable references to what the Bible "says." By contrast, the most repentant convict, though he recounted the social circumstances that led to his crime—urban poverty, gang victimhood and gang dares, etc.—also insisted that he had no one to blame but himself, that his crime belonged to him alone—and he also made it a point to consider, repeatedly, the horror of the attack and murder from the point of view of his victim and his victim's friends and family. For the former murderer, the victim was a mere abomination before the Lord; for the latter, a thoroughly human being. The contrast helped point up a crucial lesson in morality—would that it were more widely heard: that morality is based on an act of reason, not the learning of a dogma, whatever that dogma may be. Morality issues from one's ability to follow the categorical imperative, which is a rational operation—by asking either (a) what if someone did that to me—and I were not myself but some other person? or (b) what if everybody did that? The contrast also highlights, ironically, how fundamentalism, far from a basis for morality, is fundamentally and essentially immoral, because, by referring morality to an encoded and fixed text, fundamentalism thwarts the individual's ability to reason morally—since his is not to reason but to obey.

The problem of seeking morality in texts, or fixed constructs of discourse, goes back, through Kant's critique of aesthetic and teleological judgments, to Plato. In a very widely misunderstood passage, Plato's fictional character, Socrates, bids poets not enter the city state allegorizing díke:, or "goodness," but to go to "some other city"—presumably representing some other virtue, such as excellence—of the sort that Aristotle would come to define later on. The question of goodness is a question of knowledge—to know what is good or not good to do—and we cannot learn to know the good by means of an utterance detached from its speaker, one that cannot admit of questions and answers in an ongoing conversation—an utterance which, as an imitation of speech in conversation, requires that we already know enough to understand what sort of speech is being imitated and thus to have the pleasure of recognition—a point Aristotle was later to make at the outset of the Poetics. The distinction between fiction and conversation is central to Plato's Republic and Phaedrus and probably many other important dialogues. Only "dialectic"—that is, conversation—can lead us to real knowledge, because knowledge requires a passage from the sensible to the intelligible—or, to use Kant's terms, from the empirical realm of specific meanings to the formal and a priori realm of categories and certainties. This passage is impossible, of course, but—paradoxically—we must make as if it were possible, because the mere activity of the conversation is, for us, what constitutes goodness and the closest we can come to knowledge. Hence, the realm of the forms, in Republic X, is "beyond the heavens." And the danger of rhetoric and sophistry, or dogma, is that these are fictions designed to be mistaken for communications of truth. Socrates makes these points in his speeches, but Plato makes them through the fictions in which Socrates is a character—thus pointing up, paradoxically, the difference between the mere imitation of a conversation aiming at the truth and the reality of the conversation that must presumably go on around the Platonic dialogues. Kant redescribes this paradox about moral knowledge, then, with the focus shifted from the necessary hopefulness of conversation to the inadequacies of any momentary formulation. What for Plato is the danger of sophistry and other forms of fiction mistaken for truth is, for Kant, the religious dogmas that ensure the Unmündigkeit—"underage status" or "immaturity"—from which Enlightenment promises at last to free us. That the pursuit of Enlightenment itself frees us explains the idea of an Age of Enlightenment rather than an enlightened age, and matches the idea of the endless conversation in Plato—where the imaginary condition of Enlightenment itself answers to Socrates's realm "beyond the heavens."

Rather than agreeing with Socrates to view rhetoric as a kind of fiction, so long as it be conceived as isolable utterances, as artifacts, rather than as moments in a conversation, we in the academic professions today have come to view fiction as a kind of rhetoric, making the very mistake against which Socrates had argued so forcibly and Kant so subtly. It is surely no accident, then, that the philosophical basis for the materialist criticism that has gained ascendancy today—the New Historicism and cultural studies—is Marxist, by way of Adorno and—more importantly—Macherey, Balibar, Althusser, Eagleton, and Jameson. Materialist criticism has eliminated the purported "autonomy" of the literary work—and thus the distinction between fiction and communication. The materialists conceive the literary text as simultaneously a reflection of the social relations and ideology of its culture and an intervention in the same culture, whose function is to allegorize class struggle in the form of its central tensions, conflicts, and paradoxes—in such a way as to submit class conflict, thus transformed, to the aesthetic gaze of the bourgeois consumer, naturalizing class struggle so as to serve the ends of ideology par excellence. A literary text is a message whose real meaning is deeply and darkly encoded—and the veiling of the message is its message, in effect, since that is what serves the ends of ideology. What, then, could be the goal of literary studies but the unmasking of this ideological ruse so as to free us to pursue the metanarrative of our liberation by becoming "truly historical" and, presumably, bringing about a revolution to bring power to the suppressed underclass masses? This agenda, I submit, is the real ideological ruse, since so many swept into the current of materialist criticism today do not even seem to recognize how it serves as the basis of their work. If literature and philosophy—including Kant but presumably excluding Marx—could not but help consolidate power for the bourgeoisie—then what are they but moments in the ongoing metanarrative of our common struggle toward our happy communist destiny, in which we will all fish in the morning, hunt in the afternoon, and criticize—presumably criticize texts of all sorts from the unenlightened past—in the evening?

It seems to me that the modernity of a hope, however unacknowledged, for an apocalyptic end to our paradoxes haunts two areas somewhat belatedly: the adherents of fundamentalism and the scholars of cultural studies. It is time, I think, to begin making our way out of the Unmündigkeit of our illusions in both spheres, and to recognize, following the lead of thinkers from Plato to Lacan and Derrida, but perhaps most of all Kant, how our paradoxes are the very core of our being. This would mean, in the realm of morals, an understanding of justice as eternally imperfect, and yet justice nonetheless, so long as-and only so long as-we engage in an ongoing, serious conversation about the justice of particular deeds and choices. In the realm of aesthetics and education, this passage to enlightenment would recall the paradoxes built into Kant's accounts of aesthetic judgment, as an interested disinterestedness, and of the sublime, which is something like the concept of no concept. Even more to the point, I think, is Kant's account of the beautiful, which is a sense of the purposiveness of the whole without an identification of its purpose, an identification that would render the object merely useful rather than beautiful. Materialist criticism makes this very reduction, by deflating the aesthetic object as the instrument of ideology. Yet even Lyotard, who departs from the materialist mainstream, shares with Adorno a preference for the sublime, as the hallmark of the avant-garde and revolutionary. A passage beyond our immature illusions would, I think, reclaim the neglected radicalism of the beautiful. In any case, by recognizing the paradox at the core of works of art and literature, we would understand how, by the very nature of their play, they give us, precisely, the opportunity, within the aesthetic moment, to make peace with our struggles. For this to happen, we must begin by distinguishing firmly between the fictions that reflect our paradoxes under an aesthetic light and the conversations we have about our paradoxes and our fictions.

Amittai F. Aviram
University of South Carolina


This page last updated Thursday, May 6, 2004 by the author — amittai dot aviram at gmail dot edu. © 2000 by Amittai F. Aviram.