?From the great beyond into the present? ? an interview with Jo Lendle

Hanser publisher Jo Lendle talks about gentle adjustments of languages and marketing strategies.... more more

GoetheInstitute

21/02/2007

Don't blame the postmodernists

Stuart Sim answers Paul Cliteur, defending postmodernism and arguing that scepticism can contribute to a new European story.

French philosopher Pascal Bruckner accused Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash of propagating a form of multiculturalism that amounts to legal apartheid. His fiery polemic unleashed an international debate (here). Buruma and Garton Ash were quick to answer. In a subsequent piece, Paul Cliteur criticises the "postmodern relativism" of Buruma and Stuart Sim. Sim answers below.

Multiculturalism has its drawbacks and paradoxes, but it is still worth defending if the alternative is enforced cultural homogeneity. It depends how the concept is interpreted. At the moment it is increasingly an argument for cultural separatism, whereas it ought to mean peaceful coexistence and the mutually-beneficial sharing and disseminating of ideas. Perhaps that would be better termed polyculturalism? Crucially, however, I do not see how how such a system can work without a context of secularism. Personally, I'd like to see religion wither away as a force in human affairs, but I'm well aware that is a utopian dream. Yet that need not prevent us from striving to realise one of the key objectives of Enlightenment thought: the removal of organised religion from politics. When religions enter politics, they have a depressing habit of gravitating towards theocracy. And I'm not just speaking of Islam. Christian fundamentalists in America and Jewish fundamentalists in Israel are driven by the same ideals, even if they are currently less successful in achieving their desires than their Islamic counterparts are.

I'd like to make the case for a role for scepticism within the debate on multiculturalism, and also to defend the reputation of postmodern thought after what I consider to be unfair treatment at the hands of Paul Cliteur. If multiculturalism can be persuaded to take scepticism on board, and to acknowledge that all religions and belief systems have a history of scepticism that can be activated against their tendency towards dogmatism, then it can still contribute to constructing "'a new European story." The problem isn't Islam, or Enlightenment, or multiculturalism, or postmodernism, or relativism: it's dogmatism, and unless that is addressed we're treating symptoms not causes.

Like Ian Buruma, I feel myself to be the subject of a misreading by Cliteur, and I agree with Buruma's complaint that there has been a great deal of misrepresentation, of both views and concepts, over the course of this debate. It is my intention here to try and clear up some of these misrepresentations in the hope that this pushes the debate further forward. Polemic is one thing, but distortion of opposing viewpoints is something else again. It's time to revisit some of the key terms we are all using.

I am taken to task by Cliteur for being a "postmodern nihilist" in my book "Fundamentalist World: The New Dark Age of Dogma," which I find very odd, as I am careful to point out that my intent is to graft the best aspects of postmodern thought onto the best aspects of Enlightenment thought – "Enlightenment Plus," as I call it – in order to confront dogmatism. I continue that theme in a subsequent book, "Empires of Belief: Why We Need More Scepticism and Doubt in the Twenty-First Century," and I will return to the arguments of that later. I agree with Buruma also that one of the Enlightenment's "greatest achievements is the rejection of dogmatism," and with Pascal Bruckner's observation that the Enlightenment has "showed itself capable of reviewing its mistakes." Modernity may have many sins that can be charged against it, but modernity and the Enlightenment, although they overlap, should not be conflated. How my own rejection of dogmatism turns me into a nihilist I am at a loss to understand.

What is most questionable about Cliteur's piece is that it consistently conflates concepts in order to dismiss the views of opponents. From his perspective, scepticism equates to relativism, and relativism to nihilism. This is a travesty of what scepticism and relativism actually involve. Scepticism has a long and distinguished history in Western philosophy (and as I note in "Empires of Belief," features in non-Western philosophical traditions, such as Islam, too), and its role as an internal critique of the discipline's wilder speculations should be valued rather than mocked. Its main enemy has always been dogmatism, and it asks us to reconsider all those assumptions claimed to be beyond all possible doubt: that God exists; that our God is the only true one; that the Bible - or any other holy book, for that matter - is a literal transcription of God's will; that the free market is the only acceptable way to run a national economy, etc. These are treated as articles of faith by believers, whose refusal to countenance an alternative viewpoint is the source of a great many of the world's current socio-political problems. Scepticism argues that we should suspend judgements where we lack proof of their truth: I cannot see what is wrong with that, it strikes me as an entirely healthy attitude to adopt. Unquestioning belief is rife amongst us, and it always leads to trouble. Surely it's a worthwhile project to subject that tendency to close scrutiny?

Neither is it nihilistic to concede that various interpretations of the world are possible. Again, it is dogmatism that is being confronted. At base, relativism is calling into question the notion of there being an absolute truth - precisely what all those of a fundamentalist disposition claim there is (their version, naturally). Even worse, fundamentalists refuse to acknowledge that other views have any validity at all. You can't debate with them - about multiculturalism or anything else.

As for postmodernism, I just do not recognise Cliteur's interpretation of this. Postmodernism challenges authority in its many guises, and questions the assumptions that underpin our value system. It is a tactical exercise designed to make us rethink the ideals behind modernity, many of which have proved over time to have an adverse effect on our world. But I'd regard that as in the best spirit of the Enlightenment: refusing to take things on trust just because they have the weight of traditional authority behind them. And if Cliteur thinks that postmodernists "refrain from criticism" in the political domain, then he is failing to take account of the work of Jean-Francois Lyotard, particularly his impassioned critique of fascism in Heidegger and "the Jews." Much of Lyotard's philosophical career was spent in searching for ways of being politically active, in a leftish sense, while steering clear of the unexamined assumptions by which ideologies justify themselves.

I'd also contest Cliteur's claim that for me, "every single set of ideas that is not completely relativistic is fundamentalist." First of all, I don't know what it would mean to be "completely relativistic"; secondly, I explicitly commit myself in "Fundamentalist World" to what I admit could be called "universal values": "equality of opportunity, an end to cultural oppression and the tyranny of tradition (religiously inspired or otherwise), and the eradication of discrimination on the grounds of gender, ethnic group, social position, or sexual preference." This hardly sounds like nihilism to me, and I make these commitments precisely because the various fundamentalisms I discuss are denying their validity. If it's a universal value to be against discrimination then I'm more than happy to subscribe to it.

My argument in "Empires of Belief" is that we need to encourage scepticism and doubt as a method of countering the spread of dogmatism and unquestioning belief. There is almost always more reason to doubt your beliefs than to feel they are beyond dispute. The natural impulse of empires of belief is to stifle dissent, and that is all too common an occurrence at present. If multiculturalism is to mean anything then it has to include the possibility, even desirability, of dissent within any system of belief. Islam is not going to go away, but non-believers should be doing what they can to stimulate debate within it, as well as make information widely available about the traditions of dissent, and, yes, outright scepticism, that exist within Islam as a system of thought. Islam will have to change from within, but that does not mean it should not also be challenged vigorously by ideas from the outside. I very much endorse Bruckner's plea that we should extend all the support we can to oppositional voices within the Islamic world - creative artists, for example, who have a proven ability to have an effect on public consciousness.

So it's not postmodernism that we have to worry about if we're trying to put together "a new European story," it's dogmatism. Timothy Garton Ash argues for "less Bruckner, more Pascal," but I'd put it very differently: what is wanted is less belief, more scepticism and doubt.

*

Stuart Sim is Professor of Critical Theory at the University of Sunderland. His most recent book is "Empires of Belief: Why We Need More Scepticism and Doubt in the Twenty-First Century" (Edinburgh University Press, 2006).

Get the signandsight newsletter for regular updates on feature articles.
signandsight.com - let's talk european.

 
More articles

This kiss for the whole world

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Who actually owns "intellectual property"?  The German media that defend the concept of intellectual property as "real" property are the first to appropriate such rights, and they are using this idea as a defensive weapon. With lawmakers extending copyright laws and new structures emerging on the internet, intellectual property poses a serious challenge to the public domain. A survey of the German media landscape by Thierry Chervel
read more

Suddenly we know we are many

Wednesday 4th January, 2012

Why the Russian youth have tolerated the political situation in their country for so long and why they are no longer tolerant. The poet Natalia Klyuchareva explains the background to the protests on Bolotnaya Square in Moscow on December 10th. Image: Leonid Faerberg
read more

The Republic of Europe

Tuesday 20 December, 2011

Thanks to Radoslaw Sikorski's speech in Berlin, Poland has at last joined the big European debate about restructuring the EU in connection with the euro crisis. The "European Reformation" advocated by Germany does not mean that the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation will be established in Europe, but instead – let us hope – the Republic of Europe. By Adam Krzeminski
read more

Brown is not red

Tuesday 13 December, 2011

TeaserPicFilmmaker and theatre director Andres Veiel disagrees with the parallels currently being drawn between left-wing and right-wing violence in Germany. The RAF is the wrong model for the Zwickau neo-Nazi group, the so-called "Brown Army Faction" responsible for a series of murders of Turkish small business owners. Unlike the RAF, this group never publicly claimed responsibility for their crimes. Veiel is emphatic - you have to look at the biographies of the perpetrators. An interview with Heike Karen Runge.
read more

Legacy of denial

Tuesday 29 November, 2011

TeaserPicGermany has been rocked by the disclosures surrounding the series of neo-Nazi murders of Turkish citizens. In the wake of these events, Former GDR dissident Freya Klier calls for an honest look at the xenophobia cultivated by the policies of the former East Germany, where the core of the so-called "Brown Army Faction" was based. And demands that East Germans finally confront a long-denied past. (Photo: © Nadja Klier)
read more

Nausea in Paris

Monday 14 November, 2011

TeaserPicIn response to the arson attack on the offices of the Parisian satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo on November 2, Danish critic and semiotician Frederik Stjernfelt is nauseated by the opinions voiced against the publication, especially in the British and American media. Why don't they see that Islamism is right-wing extremism?
read more

Just one pyramid

Monday 10 October, 2011

Activist and author, Andri Snaer Magnason is among the Icelandic guests of honor at this year's Frankfurt Book Fair. His book and film "Dreamland" is both an ecological call to action and a polemic. "The politicians took one of the most beautiful parts of Iceland and offered it to unscrupulous companies," says the author in a critique of his native country. By Daniela Zinser
read more

Dark side of the light

Monday 3 October 2011

In their book "Lügendes Licht" (lying light) Thomas Worm and Claudia Karstedt explore the darker side of the EU ban on incandescent bulbs. From disposal issues to energy efficiency, the low-energy bulb is not necessarily a beacon of a greener future. By Brigitte Werneburg
read more

Lubricious puritanism

Tuesday 30 August, 2011

The malice of the American media in the case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn is a symptom of sexual uptightness that borders on the sinister, and the feminists have joined forces with the religious Right to see it through. We can learn much from America, but not when it comes to the art of love. By Pascal Bruckner
read more

Much ado about Sarrazin

Monday 22 August 2011

Published a year ago, the controversial book "Deutschland schafft sich ab" (Germany is doing away with itself) by former banker and Berlin Finance Senator Thilo Sarrazin sparked intense discussion. Hamed Abdel-Samad asks: what has the Sarrazin debate achieved beyond polarisation and insult? And how can Germany avoid cultivating its own classes of "future foreigners"?
read more

Economic giant, political dwarf

Wednesday 3 August, 2011

Germany's growing imbalance between economic and political competence is worsening the European crisis and indeed the crisis of Nato. The country has ceased to make any political signals at all and demonstrates a conspicuous lack of responsibility for what takes place beyond its own borders. This smug isolationism is linked to strains of old anti-Western and anti-political, anti-parliamentarian sentiment that is pure provincialism. By Karl Heinz Bohrer
read more

Sound and fury

Monday 11 April 2011

Budapest is shimmering with culture but Hungary's nationalist government is throwing its weight about in cultural life, effecting censorship through budget cuts and putting its own people in the top-level cultural positions. Government tolerance of hate campaigns against Jews and gays has provoked the likes of Andras Schiff, Agnes Heller, Bela Tarr and Andre Fischer to raise their voices in defence of basic human rights. But a lot of people are simply scared. By Volker Hagedorn
read more

The self-determination delusion

Monday 28 March, 2011

TeaserPicA Dutch action group for free will wants to give all people the right to assisted suicide. But can this be achieved without us ending up somewhere we never wanted to go? Gerbert van Loenen has grave doubts.
read more

Revolution without guarantee

Monday 21 February, 2011

Saying revolution and freedom is not the same as saying democracy, respect for minorities, equal rights and good relations with neighbouring nations. All this has yet to be achieved. We welcome the Arab revolution and will continue to watch with our eyes open to the potential dangers. By Andre Glucksmann
read more

Pascal Bruckner and the reality disconnect

Friday 14 January, 2011

The French writer Pascal Bruckner wants to forbid a word. Which sounds more like a typically German obsession. But for Bruckner, "Islamophobia" is one of "those expressions which we dearly need to banish from our vocabulary". One asks oneself with some trepidation which other words we "dearly need" to get rid of: Right-wing populism? Racism? Relativism? By Alan Posener
read more