“Weakening Liberalism: Rawls, Pluralism, and the Fact of Oppression,” by Daniel Ambord

The next five posts from Claremont Journal of Religion will be on the topic of Political Theology.  Here is a piece from the first of them.

“Moving well beyond Schmitt and even Rosenzweig, to Tillich, Chesterton, Zizek, Rawls, Vattimo, and more, these papers expand the domain of ‘political theology’ and theological politics’ in ways that should contribute to yet further deepening of serious thought about the power of religious and theological thinking in secular contexts.”—Dr. Bonnie Honig

Rawls’ notion of pluralism represents a point of sublime provocation. On the one hand, his discussion of this topic, especially in his Political Liberalism, prompts criticisms from all sides of the political theoretical spectrum, portrayed (a) as insufficiently pluralistic by those who point to Rawls’ insistence on shared standards of discourse by which a safe space for public political discussion might be held open, (b) as insufficiently neutral by those who feel that Rawls labels as neutral a proposed structure of discourse that is very much the product of his own (contingent) comprehensive views (and, indeed, one that perhaps unfairly privileges those views), and (c) as insufficiently productive of political action by those who take Rawls’ claim to neutrality seriously but suggest that this neutrality, if enacted, would bring to an end all meaningful political action in favor of endless, impotent, discursive play.

On the other hand, Rawls’ articulation of the means by which a neutral, shared space for discourse could coexist with and encourage the development of disparate comprehensive worldviews represents a valuable effort to provide a non-totalizing common ground by which cross-cultural social and political cooperation become possible. Situating Rawls’s discussions of pluralism and the creation of a metaphysically neutral political space in the context of contemporary philosophical controversies surrounding deconstructive pluralism allows us to engage in an evaluation and creative re-appropriation of that discussion.

This evaluative process culminates in the construction of an argument that, in spite of Rawls’ best efforts, collapses into a sort of comprehensive, deconstructive position. Furthermore, if we allow that collapse to take place, Rawls’ account (with some slight rehabilitation informed by the thought of Bonnie Honig and Gianni Vattimo) reveals itself as capable of grounding cross-cultural cooperation and maintaining an anti-essentializing, non-violent pluralism.

Today’s emancipatory politics finds itself defined, for better or worse, by the issue of pluralism. Indeed, the proliferation of identitarian categories and the increasing degree to which worldviews and groups are capable of publicly articulating themselves increasingly calls into question the practical possibility of establishing universalizable political, ethical, or even epistemological norms.

Correspondingly, the confrontation with difference produced by the proliferation and expression of views explicitly affiliated with identity groups has, in the last fifty or sixty years, likewise occasioned a renaissance of critical theoretical inquiry bent on exposing the hegemonic character of the universalizing projects of modernity (and, some more ambitious theorists would argue, the virtual entirety of the “Plato-to-Kant Canon”). This trajectory of inquiry—embodied in the distinct but broadly compatible projects grouped, somewhat unhelpfully, under such titles as “(eliminative) postmodernity,” “deconstruction,” and any number of hyphenated offshoots of “theory,” as well as in the deflationary accounts of philosophy offered by certain strains within the Anglophone philosophical traditions—questions not only the possibility of establishing a universalizable intellectual-cum-social system by which to ground a cross-culturally acceptable politics of emancipation, but also the very desirability of attempting to do so.

The specter of imperialism, we are cautioned, haunts even the most well-intentioned of (attempted) Intellectual/Socio-Political Grand Projects, stubbornly resisting both our efforts to exorcise it and our desire to ignore it in our desperation to address the many and varied problems facing both human civilization and the shared Earth upon which we reside.[1]

Frustratingly, the simple abandonment of those universalizing projects called into question by the circumstances of pluralism and the self-critical, deconstructionist move prompted by those circumstances are themselves fraught with problems. Indeed, to simply abandon universality in the name of an embrace of a contingency that precludes all cross-cultural judgments seems to run the risk of a collapse, if not into banal relativism (from which we are kept, at least, by the specificity and inescapability of our own cultural/intellectual circumstances), at least into a condition of radical isolation from one another.

If our systems of intellection are always and inescapably inflected by our cultural/intellectual circumstances, and if these systems are the only means by which discursive meaning is impressed upon what is essentially a contentless world (perhaps in the late Heideggerian vein of a world in which beings exist and, in a more or less mysterious fashion, solicit the imposition of discursive content upon them but utterly lack any shared, discernable content of their own by which we might gain access to universalizable realization about how the world really is), then we seemingly find ourselves deprived of the common ground necessary in order to engage productively with those operating within different systems.

Indeed, according to this model, cross cultural communication would seem to be either impossible (which prompts the uncomfortable skeptical move of supposing that what appears to be cross cultural communication is, in a certain sense at least, not truly communicative) or deeply suspect on the grounds that any attempt at communication carries with it the ineradicable risk of intellectual imperialism. Even if we are to accept, reluctantly, the reality of (at least somewhat effective) cross-cultural communication and cooperation, the hermeneutic (over-) sensitivity described above would seem to deprive that reality of any theoretical weight: productive cross cultural discourse, to the extent that it does occur, becomes something for which we are unable to account and, as such, remains unable to banish a skepticism that calls into question whether that discourse is not concealing some flaw, some terrible misunderstanding or sublimated hegemonic impulse waiting to erupt into the world of lived experience with the most sanguinary of political and social consequences.

The rest of the article is located here.

(The image is from Joker Island and was used with full permission from WikiCommons.)

[1] It is worth mentioning a stylistic idiosyncrasy here: My employment of the term “we” is not intended to suggest that I am representing anyone other than myself. Rather, it is meant to suggest my treatment of the work as a collaboration between author and reader, to solicit creative interpretations, and to offer up the work as an appropriable resource.

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