Into the heart of darkness
Philosophy: Loss of faith in the enabling power of reason - whether through scientific progress, political revolution, or the achievement of less illusioned consciousness - is the mark of postmodernism, writes Joseph Dunne.
This promiscuous term can indeed connote movements - for example, ecology, feminism, or a renewed localism in the after-wash of globalisation - still committed to more inclusive human flourishing. But philosophically, postmodernism has a darker import: it convicts "reason", even in its most humane gestures, as a repressive agent; and what it deciphers beneath the repression is not a denied potential that might be emancipated so much as an abyss of horror and dread. This philosophy, anticipated most keenly by Nietzsche (though its contemporary formulations are overwhelmingly French), is the subject of Richard Kearney's latest book, Strangers, Gods and Monsters.
Kearney approaches postmodernism through an exploration of the shadow side of western reason and of the would-be masterful self it has inhabited. He ranges over ancient mythologies, mediaeval gargoyles, Hamlet (Shakespeare's and Joyce's), the Romantic "sublime" with its associations of the super- and sub-human, the monstrous and uncanny as recurrent motifs throughout the history of art, and the fascination in contemporary popular culture with mutants, extra-terrestrials, and cyborgs.
The lesson he derives from this tour of netherworlds is that the alien and unsettling are always already a part of human being: the monsters, gods and ghosts that populate our imaginations, both fascinating and repelling us, symbolise unruly forces within ourselves. This dangerous truth becomes damaging, however, only when we refuse to acknowledge it. And the most enduring form of refusal is the projection of these forces from the self to the other, who is then demonised, ostracised, or killed - a tale that stretches from ancient sacrificial scapegoating to contemporary xenophobia and terror (the Holocaust casts a long shadow throughout the book and one of several arresting interludes is a reading of 9/11 in the light, or darkness, of Kant and Baudrillard).
Kearney's journey into the heart of darkness might seem to put him in the company of the postmodernist philosophers whom he introduces in a series of lucid, sometimes brilliant, readings. But he is prepared to bring philosophy only to the limit - and not, as he sees them doing, over the edge. He accepts that the modern self's project of control in its Enlightenment heyday finds its proper nemesis in the dissolution that now threatens the postmodern self. But, for him, this threat, though in some respects salutary, is to be resisted - rather than embraced with the postmodernist combination of resignation and gusto. He will not countenance the defeat of our sense-making capacities by an ultimate intractability or "excess", even in the hyper-ethics of Emmanuel Levinas, not to speak of the kinds of amoralism indulged by Bataille, Lyotard, and Baudrillard. Against these extremisms of otherness - as against what he sees as the extremism of selfhood classically inscribed in modern thought by Descartes - he offers an account in which the self's capacity for narration, bearing witness, mourning, discerning justly and forgiving leave it as neither aggressor nor hostage of the other.
This book will displease at least two kinds of people: those who think that "continental" philosophy should be left to sink under the weight of its own portentousness and those - more likely to be his readers - disappointed that the outcome of his engagement with avant-garde thought is only the restatement of a judicious, much chastened humanism. But both of these responses (the second unhappily reinforced by the Blairite ring of Kearney's frequent characterisation of his position as a "third way") under- estimate the interest and insight of this remarkable book.
Kearney writes under the sign of Hermes, messenger, mediator and minder of communication. With great deftness, he keeps the lines open - between himself and his assembled interlocutors, and between binary concepts in terms of which we seem fated to think and live: self and other, identity and difference, past and present, conscious and unconscious, and indeed openness and closure.
By one of its many twists, postmodern deconstruction has occasioned a reopening of religious concerns, not least by those wishing to resist its propulsion to the "post-human". Kearney's avowedly ethical resistance leads him not only to rejoin philosophy's ancient - but, in its dominant academic modes, long since abandoned - pursuit of wisdom, but to do so in ways that do not foreclose the question of god. In this, he draws support from and makes generous reference to the work of William Desmond and Joseph O'Leary. It is one of the ironies of contemporary Ireland that when established religion is melting down at home, three Irish philosophers plying their trade abroad (in America, Europe and Asia) are at the front edge in keeping the central religious question still in play.
Joseph Dunne teaches philosophy and co-ordinates the programme in Human Development at St Patrick's College, Dublin. He has recently co-edited with James Kelly Childhood and its Discontents: The First Seamus Heaney Lectures, published earlier this year by The Liffey Press
Strangers, Gods and Monsters. By Richard Kearney, Routledge, 294pp, £15.99