The Question of Epochs

Have we entered a "postmodern" phase of history? And if so, is this to be celebrated or regretted? If the modern phase is progressive, then is the postmodern inevitably reactionary at heart, for all its clever disguises? In what follows, I will examine the relation of the postmodern to the modern through a double perspective. In the theoretical sphere, I will focus on the conjoined philosophical legacy of univocity and representation which can be taken as the ultimate presupposition of modern thought. In the practical sphere, I will focus on the category of "civil society" which is normally regarded as the core of a secular public space in modern times.

In his book We Have Never Been Modern the French philosopher of science Bruno Latour exposes the falsity of the myth that there are absolutely irreversible breaks in cultures through time (Latour 1993). This observation bears strongly upon the theme of the present essay, for in tracing certain theoretical and practical transformations from the later Middle Ages to the early modern period, one can see that certain aspects of late medieval theological thought in fact underpin later characteristically "modern" ideas, even though much in the Enlightenment may also be seen as a qualified reaction against these changes. It has of course been common to account for the origins of modernity in terms of the vague edifice of "the Enlightenment," and to see modernity as coextensive with the rise of the secular modern state needed to quell the wars of religion, together with the rise of systematic organization of medical, educational, and penal institutions. But given that attempts to improve society in a secular way via the state and market have so visibly failed, perhaps this revised genealogy, which stresses the legacy of a distorted religious theory and practice, could also point us indirectly toward a more serious alternative future polity than the liberal and postmodern critiques.

But one can even go further than this. Against the one-dimensional "modern" vision of progress, postmodern philosophers and cultural theorists have protested in the name of the diverse, the more than human, the incommensurable. In doing so, some of them (in particular Gilles Deleuze, Alain Badiou, and Jacques Derrida) have explicitly appealed back to the thirteenth-century figure of Duns Scotus for their alternative vision. They regard his leveling of the infinite and the finite to a univocal being, his unleashing of the virtual and unmedi-ably discontinuous, as permitting a radical break with a totalizing rationalism. But it has recently been argued that all these Scotist innovations themselves lie at the inception of modernity (Alliez 1996; Cunningham 2002). How can they provide the key to a break with modernity? Surely they betoken a radicalization of, and a return to, the very origins of modernity?

Duns Scotus' flattening out of actual necessity to pure virtuality, and of being to the bare fact of existence, which are modern "rationalist" moves (and which undergird the primacy of epistemology over ontology), do indeed suggest a rad-icalization of the modern in a more anarchic direction. All possibilities acquire a limitless and equalized range, and all existence is rendered merely phenomenal and ephemeral, lacking altogether in depth or any symbolic pointing beyond itself toward either eternal truth or abiding "human" values.

This suggests that one way to understand the postmodern is as the "late modern," or the intensification of certain trends established within modernity. The invocation of Duns Scotus and the later Middle Ages by Deleuze, Badiou, and Derrida (and many others) is a crucial part of what is best understood as a revised understanding of the nature of modernity itself.

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