Postmodern Approaches to Political Theory

Jane Bennett. Handbook of Political Theory. Editor: Gerald F Gaus & Chandran Kukathas. Sage Publication. 2004.

The term postmodernism has currency in political theory, but also in literary studies, philosophy, anthropology, the arts, and popular discourse, in each case functioning somewhat differently. Its usages can be summarized under three headings: (1) as a sociological designation for an epochal shift in the way collective life is organized (from centralized and hierarchical control towards a network structure); (2) as an aesthetic genre (literature that experiments with non-linear narration, a playful architecture of mixed styles, an appreciation of popular culture that complicates the distinction between high and low); (3) as a set of philosophical critiques of teleological and/or rationalist conceptions of nature, history, power, freedom, and subjectivity. Postmodernism in political theory participates in all three, but perhaps most intensively in the third, which is the emphasis of this chapter.

Judith Butler points out that to use the category ‘postmodern theory’ is to make an assumption that postmodern theorists find problematic, i.e. that ‘theories offer themselves in bundles or in organized totalities, and that … a set of theories which are structurally similar emerge as the articulation of an historically specific condition of human reflection’ (1995: 38). In all arenas, discussions of postmodernism are highly charged; it is routinely denounced as nihilistic, immoral, or politically irresponsible. Indeed, the term is invoked more often by those who oppose postmodernism than by those said to be its practitioners. Many of the latter reject it as a self-description: Gilles Deleuze because he pursued a kind of metaphysics, whereas postmodernism is said to be post-metaphysical, and because he preferred a Kafkaesque humour of sense and nonsense to the irony more typically associated with postmodernism (Rajchman, 2000: 126); William Connolly (2002) because the term is identified with the theme of the world as text, a theme he takes to underestimate the significance of human corporeality, and because the term’s content floats with the concerns of the critic bestowing the name. Drucilla Cornell accepts the designation reluctantly, in part because she rejects ‘the very idea that periods of history can be rigidly separated’ (1991: 207). Richard Rorty feels ‘doomed to be referred to as a “postmodernist”,’ but acknowledges that ‘the people they are bunching me with do share quite a few enemies and attitudes’ (1995: 214 n.1). Amidst all this, I will retain the label because it gestures, however imperfectly, toward an innovative body of theoretical work that came of age in the last several decades.

Within political theory, critics from both the right and the left have tended to see postmodernism as a rejection of the quest for an objective truth behind subjective experiences (Cheney, 1996; Dumm and Norton, 1998). Because this quest is thought to set the condition of possibility for any affirmative claim, postmodern political theory is charged with being anti-political and unable to take an ethical stand, except that of resistance, disobedience, refusal, or deconstruction for deconstruction’s sake. Stephen White offers a subtle version of this criticism: while ‘poststructuralist and postmodern thought … carries a persistent utopian hope of a “not yet”,’ it too often ‘remains blithely unspecific about normative orientation in the here and now’ (2000: 90). In response, some postmodernists contend that a positive ethic need not require a universal God, Reason or some such surrogate, but can be grounded on the cultivation of existential attachment to life rather than on an internal or external authority (Bennett, 2001; Coles, 1997; Foucault, 1988; Kateb, 2000). The complex of epistemological and ontological claims that constitute the distinctive style of thinking called postmodern cannot with justice be reduced to negativism. Nevertheless, the charge has prompted some of its best theorists to articulate more closely the affirmative possibilities within their approach.

I will focus in what follows on the positive themes within postmodernism. My summary is a selective account of what a postmodernist sensibility has to offer in the way of an affirmative political vision. Postmodernism in political theory emerged, and continues to develop, in close relation to other theoretical approaches, including feminism, liberalism, psychoanalytic theory, critical theory, and utopianism. It makes the most sense, then, when understood in dialogue with these other perspectives, as part of a broader discussion about the nature of reality, the degree to which it is knowable or in some way accessible to experience, and the possibilities for its improvement in terms of justice, freedom, or humaneness.

Postmodern theory often takes the form of genealogical studies which reveal how discursive practices and conceptual schemata are embedded with power relations, and how these cultural forms constitute what is experienced as natural or real (Butler, 1993; Brown, 1995; Ferguson, 1991). One of the political insights of postmodern theory is that ‘the stakes of a democratic politics… are as much about the modern crisis of representation as they are about the distribution of other goods’ (Dumm, 1999: 60). Deconstructions of madness and criminality, feminist and queer studies of gender and sexuality, postcolonial studies of race and nation these all seek to uncover the human-madeness of entities formerly considered either natural, universal, or innevitable. Much genealogical work, however, also insists upon the material recalcitrance of cultural products. Gender, sexuality, race, and personal identity are viewed as congealed responses to contingent sets of historical circumstances, and yet the mere fact that they are human artifacts does not mean that they yield readily to human understanding or control (Gatens, 1996). A personal identity, for example, is a construction, but one sedimented into bodily movements, instinctive tendencies, linguistic routines, and institutional forms that resist human attempts to redirect or revise them. Everything is acculturated, but cultural forms are themselves material assemblages of natural bodies. Postmodern theory acknowledges the artifice of the natural and the materiality of the cultural. In what follows, I emphasize how its partisans wrestle with this uneasy pair of insights.

The Elusive and Productive Excess

There always exists—in words, things, bodies, thoughts, artifacts, ways of life—that which is persistently resistant to theoretical capture, or, for that matter, to any fixed form. This indeterminate and never fully determinable dimension of things has been described as difference or différance (Jacques Derrida), the virtual (Gilles Deleuze), non-identity (Theodor Adorno), the invisible (Maurice Merleau-Ponty), the immanent (William Connolly), the semiotic (Julia Kristeva), sexual difference (Luce Irigaray), the real (Jacques Lacan), life (Friedrich Nietzsche), or negativity (Diana Coole). Jean-François Lyotard calls it ‘that which exceeds every putting into form or object without being anywhere else but within them’ (1997: 29).

Whether this restlessness that haunts all positive forms is an ontological necessity or an effect of language is a question answered differently by various postmodern thinkers (Coole, 2000). In all cases, however, it functions as a chastening limit to the projects of political mastery, final moral codes, or normative consensus, reminding us of the capacity for resistance, perhaps even a moment of independence, of life and the world. Postmodern political theory tries to acknowledge this resistance and to resist the urge to expel this disruptive force from politics (Honig, 1993). Difference is important to postmodern theory not only because it ‘is’ in some sense, and thus ought to be acknowledged, but also because its operation is seen as a condition of positivity or concrete form as such (Corson, 2001). In other words, difference both subsists in the positive and helps to produce new positivities; it is ‘the principle of generativity itself: that force or movement which… renders meaning and institutions possible yet menaced’ (Coole, 2000: 74). Différance, the virtual, non-identity, etc. name, on the one hand, the remainder left out of any theoretical account, and, on the other hand, the creative energy within existing forms out of which new things (identities, rights, social movements) emerge. That creative process is understood as ever ongoing: any given being is seen—if one places it in the appropriate period of duration—as in the process of becoming, i.e. becoming otherwise than it is.

A contribution of Lacanian theory to postmodern political theory consists in its identification of these moments of becoming as political moments. In contrast to ‘politics,’ or the established, institutional means for organizing collective life, the ‘political’ here refers to those irruptive events that reveal ‘politics’ to be a masking of the restless and stubbornly diverse quality of ‘the real’ or that which always exceeds actuality and eludes symbolic expression. The event of the political provides a glimpse into this real, thus revealing the fantasmic character of the image of society as a harmonious whole (Stavrakakis, 1999).

The Lacanian notion of the political functions in a similar way to what Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari (1987) call, using a more physicalist vocabulary, the cosmic. The cosmic is that dimension of an entity, an act, or a claim that is energetic and not organized into an object of knowledge or thing with which it is possible to identify. The cosmic consists in unruly and unpredictable ‘forces, densities, intensities’ that ‘are not thinkable in themselves’ (1987: 342-3). The cosmic is the virtual world that subsists in the actual and whose presence is signalled by the surprising eruption of an event that no one foresaw or could have foreseen. The cosmic is this ‘political’ dimension of existence.

Why might postmodern political theorists invoke this turbulent and elusive realm? First, in order to assert the futility of attempts to achieve a final and fixed form of political order—a project which appears as something like an ontological impossibility. And, second, in order to defend democratic culture, with its constitutive tensions between order and disorder, as a form of governance that is, paradoxically, most in harmony with the nature of being. The postmodern story of the world as itself ‘political’ or having a ‘cosmic’ dimension is one kind of metanarrative.

A Metanarrative of Immanence

A metanarrative is an overarching theory about the way the world operates, a story about the fundamental character of the naturalsocial universe. As such, it functions as a frame of reference for judging other theories of more limited scope and aspiration. It may be experienced as a religious truth or as a metaphysical imaginary with a contingent heuristic value, or as occupying one of many positions between these two poles. Metanarratives are used within political theory to help legitimate a theory’s claims about authority, the state, citizenship, freedom, rights, etc. For example, Hobbes uses a metanarrative of a world of natural bodies in perpetual motion and a distant, Jobian God to ground his notions of sovereignty, contract, political speech, and civil peace. One distinctive mark of postmodern theory is its rejection of those metanarratives that present themselves as expressive of a transcendental truth, or that view nature or history as having an intrinsic purpose, or that entail a two-world meta physic. Examples of the last include Plato’s division between the true world of the forms and the deceptive world of sensuous appearances, Augustine’s City of God and City of Man, Kant’s noumenal and phenomenal realms, and Hegel’s implicit Idea as it unfolds in history.

Some postmodern theorists reject any use of metanarrative, but others do not. The second group affirms the psychological utility and ethical power of an ontological imaginary. These theorists, like Hobbes, link their political claims to speculative claims about nature, matter, or being. But their metaphysical views are presented as an onto-story whose persuasiveness is always at issue and ‘can never be fully disentangled from an interpretation of present historical circumstances’ (White, 2000: 10-11). Not all postmodern theorists, then, purport to be post-metaphysical, just as some who purport to be post-metaphysical, such as Rawls and Habermas and those inspired by them, are not postmodern theorists.

Nietzsche is often the inspiration behind the onto-stories affirmed within postmodern theory, in terms of both content and style. He offers a vision of the way the world is. But he also insists that, like all metaphysical orientations, it is a ‘conjecture’ he is not able to prove:

do you know what ‘the world’ is to me?… a monster of energy… that does not expend itself but only transforms itself… [A] play of forces and waves of forces, at the same time one and many… a sea of forces flowing and rushing together, eternally changing… with an ebb and a flood of its forms; out of the simplest forms striving toward the most complex, out of the stillest, most rigid, coldest forms toward the hottest, most turbulent… and then again returning home to the simple out of this abundance, out of the play of contradictions back to the joy of concord. (Nietzsche, 1987: 1067)

The Deleuzean story of a world of protean forces shares Nietzsche’s emphasis on open-ended dynamism and flow, as does Lyotard’s ‘A postmodern fable,’ a scifitale of humans preparing to escape the earth as the sun is about to burn out. Also like Nietzsche, Lyotard describes a world without the promise of a final or eschatological achievement. If to be modern, says Lyotard, is to long to re-establish a ‘full and whole relation with the law of the Other… as this… was in the beginning,’ then to be postmodern is to try to cure thought and action of this eschatological desiring (1997: 96-7). Lyotard discerns this desire not only in Christian political theory but in some Enlightenment narratives, in Romanticist or speculative dialectics, and in Marxism. He is particularly harsh on what he takes to be Habermas’s search for universal consensus, a search Lyotard identifies with a terroristic conformity (Docker, 1994). Lacanian political theory, whose relationship to postmodernism is in other ways more complicated, also rejects the desire for fullness discernible in much of political theory (Laclau and Mouffe, 1985). It seeks a democratic polity based not on the vision of a harmonious social whole but upon ‘the recognition of the impossibility and the catastrophic consequences of such a dream’ (Stavrakakis, 1999: 111).

In more general terms, postmodern theory that does not seek to be post-metaphysical pursues a metaphysics of immanence, an onto-story where there is nothing outside of the immensely complex, wondrously diverse, and never fully manifest material world. In the two-world metaphysics of Plato, Augustine, and Kant, immanence is conceived as immanent to something transcendent that is given moral or conceptual primacy (Berg-Sorensen, 2001). The goal of the postmodern metaphysicians, in contrast, is to think immanence without reintro-ducing transcendence, to narrate what Giorgio Agamben calls ‘the vertigo in which outside and inside, immanence and transcendence, are absolutely indistinguishable’ (1999: 238-9). The ‘outside’ is pictured as an evanescent field (of difference, the virtual, etc.) that is nevertheless not ‘transcendent’ because it is always already folding into the immanent realm of discrete entities. It is a constitutive outside.

There is a materialist energetics in several versions of postmodernism—not the mechanical materialism of classical metaphysics, but an immanent materialism in which the world itself contains the power to metamorphose at unexpected junctures from old forms into new and surprising ones. Deleuze and Guattari speak, for example, of nature as a perpetual machine for generating new and dynamic compositions: nature as ‘a pure plane of immanence… upon which everything is given, upon which unformed elements and materials dance’ (1987: 255). This onto-story shares Hegel’s sense of nature as a fluid field of potentialities, but not Hegel’s confidence about the possibility of taming this force or his lack of concern about the violence involved in doing so. For Hegel, the encounter with nature’s becoming provokes the desire

to compel this Proteus to cease its transformations and show itself to us and declare itself to us; so that it may not present us with a variety of ever new forms, but in simpler fashion bring to our consciousness in language what it is. (1974: 199)

Postmodern theory affirms Hegel’s insight into the protean character of life, but aspires to a different balance between being and becoming in social life.

Humans, Animals, Cyborgs

Postmodern theorizing repositions the human in relation to the non-human entities and forces with which it shares the world. Its metaphysics of immanence displaces humans from the centre of the universe. We are viewed instead as a particularly complex and reflexive formation, differing from other forms in significant degree but not in kind. ‘Humankind is taken for a complex material system; consciousness, for an effect of language; and language for a highly complex material system’ (Lyotard, 1997: 98). Human beings are more complex animals, rather than animals ‘with an extra added ingredient called “intellect” or “the rational soul”’ (Rorty, 1995: 199). Thought and thinking are not devalued here; they are made part of the natural world in which we are set. The suspicion amongst opponents of postmodern approaches to political theory is that if one denies a two-world metaphysics, one necessarily disparages the importance of thinking. But a variety of postmodern thinkers believe that to give thinking its due as a sophisticated process and creative activity, it is important to address its implication in somatic forces and natural systems.

The human is pictured as a mixture of categories of things against which it has traditionally been defined. We are hybrids of animal and machine, culture and biology, language and affect. We are cyborgs, says Donna Haraway (1989), who examines the advantages and disadvantages of this for democratic politics, feminism, and multicultural coexistence. Bruno Latour says that the human is not one pole to be opposed to another called the non-human, but rather a ‘weaver of morphisms’: ‘The expression “anthropomorphic” considerably underestimates our humanity. We should be talking about… technomorphisms, zoomorphisms, physiomorphisms, ideomorphisms, theomorphisms, sociomorphisms, psychomorphisms… Their alliances and their exchanges, taken together, are what define the anthropos’ (1993: 137).

Deleuze and Guattari’s (1987) discussion of the childhood game of ‘becoming animal’ explores the positive potential of this mobile hybridity. The game, they say, reveals the child’s sense of herself as born from an over-rich field of protean forces and materials, only some of which are tapped by her current, human form. In playing their barking, mooing, chirping, growling games, children bear witness to an ‘inhuman contrivance with the animal’ within them:

it is as though, independent of the evolution carrying them toward adulthood, there were room in the child for other becomings, ‘other contemporaneous possibilities’ that are not regressions but creative involutions bearing witness to ‘an inhumanity immediately experienced in the body as such.’ (1987: 273)

The postmodern emphasis on the shared material basis of all things—of humans, animals, artifacts and natural objects—also advances an ecological sense of interconnectedness. In its environmentalism, postmodernism competes with other theoretical approaches as a route to a more progressive politics.

The Physics of Becoming

Postmodern theorists picture the human being, like everything else that is, to be engaged in ongoing transitions between being and becoming. For Derrida, becoming is what makes possible any progress or improvement toward an ideal in political life:

If man is a perfectible creature, that is, if the identity of man is something ‘to come,’ then the limits of humanity are not given… So from that point of view, to be suspicious about the limits of man is not to be anti-humanist, on the contrary, it’s a way of respecting what remains ‘to come,’ under the name and the face of what we call ‘man.’ (2001: 44)

Individuals and states are not, however, fully in charge of this process or best understood as the master agents behind it. Again, humanity is one wondrous material manifestation among others. It has good, though inadequate, resources for intervening in life and inflecting the direction of becoming. The stuff of becoming is conceived as energy, force, affect, intensity, or life. These flows both subsist within intentions, spirituality, morality, culture, identity, and reasoning and help to give them the potential for mobility. None of these traditional entities is denied, but all are taken to be second-order formations emerging out of that which they are not. Within such an onto-story, it would be foolish to attempt to master the world; becomings can be facilitated, shifted, or resisted, but not commanded or ordered completely.

Lyotard’s (1997) postmodern fable dramatizes this point. In it ‘energy’ is engaged in a perpetual and productive struggle between entropic disorder and the development of increasingly complex systems of order. This development

is not an invention made by Humans. Humans are an invention of development. The hero of the fable is not the human species, but energy. The fable narrates a series of episodes marking now the success of what is most likely, death, and now the success of what is least likely and most precarious, and what is also the most efficient, the complex. (1997: 92)

At the end of the fable, some being is seeking to escape the earth, but whether it is a human and his/her brain, or a brain and its human, ‘that, the story does not tell’ (1997: 83).

Postmodern theory experiments with the idea that society and nature participate in similar logics, the non-linear ordering of a web of interdependencies. Here cultural theorists have sought to adjust complexity theory, originally developed by scientists to describe the most perplexing physical systems, to describe political and social relations. Lyotard (1997), Deleuze and Guattari (1987), and Michel Serres (1982), for example, draw upon the work of the Nobel laureate in chemistry, Ilya Prigogine. Their postmodern theories do not reject modern science, as some critics contend, but actively endorse one version of modern science, the one that understands nature in terms of turbulent systems where small changes in background conditions can have big effects, where micro-shifts can produce macro-effects.

Prigogine articulates a version of natural science congenial to postmodern cultural theory. He and his collaborator, the philosopher of science Isabelle Stengers, eschew the model of nature implied in classical dynamics, which presents ‘a silent world… a dead, passive nature, a nature that behaves as an automaton which, once programmed, continues to follow the rules inscribed in the program’ (Prigogine and Stengers, 1984: 6). Their own model engages a nature where creativity and novelty abound and ‘where the possible is richer than the real.’ They insist, however, that nature retains a kind of intelligibility, even in its most complex and indeterminate states (Prigogine, 1997). Nature is neither the static world of classical dynamics nor some random set of fluctuations unrecognizable as a world: ‘a new formulation of the laws of nature is now possible… in which there is room for both the laws of nature and novelty and creativity’ (1997: 16).

Postmodern theory tends, in its various manifestations, to conceive the relationship between social order and change in a similar manner, as an incompletely structured system, an open system susceptible to unpredictable encounters and the periodic emergence of new formations.

Reason and Affect

Postmodern approaches to political theory do not reject reasoning, rationality, or Enlightenment values. They do call into question Reason, i.e. the Kantian idea of a transcendental field that finds various expressions in the scientific, moral, and aesthetic judgements of human beings. Foucault, for example, believes that ‘the central issue of philosophy and critical thought since the eighteenth century has been, still is, and will, I hope, remain the question, What is the Reason that we use? What are its historical effects? What are its limits, and what are its dangers?’ (1989: 269). To employ reasoning without recourse to Reason, as postmodern theory does, is to develop a heightened sensitivity to the ethical and political dangers of relying upon reasoning outside of its relationship to less cognitive forms of knowing and experiencing.

There is a distinctive set of fears and anxieties that provoke postmodern thinking, including the excessive regulation and normalization of persons, places and experiences. One of the negative effects of societal rationalization and scientific categorization is the marginalization and denigration of people found not to measure up to prevailing criteria of rationality, normality, and responsibility (White, 1998). This element of cruelty within rationality is said to coexist alongside its nobler achievements.

A second liability of rationality concerns its inadequacy as a somatic inspiration for ethical action. Rational principles do not provide their own incentive for enactment. The key claim here is that ethics requires both reasoning and affect, where reasoning refers to acts of representation and systematic thought and affect refers to feeling-imbued thoughts that are not representational. Though affect is in ordinary parlance used as a synonym for emotion, in postmodern theory it is associated with a more protean kind of force, an intensity not yet organized into the distinct shape of emotion (Massumi, 2002). On this model of ethics, ethics entails both a moral code (which condenses moral ideals and metaphysical assumptions into rational principles and reasonable rules) and an embodied sensibility (which organizes affects into a style and generates the impetus to enact the code). Moral codes, for example, the Ten Commandments, remain inert without a disposition hospitable to their injunctions, the perceptual refinement necessary to apply them to particular cases, and the affective energy needed to perform them. Foucault puts the point this way:

for an action to be ‘moral,’ it must not be reducible to an act or a series of acts conforming to a rule, a law, or a value… There is… no moral conduct that does not [also] call for the forming of oneself as an ethical subject; and no forming of the ethical subject without… practices of the self that support them. (1985: 28)

Regardless of whether the ethical code is conceived as divine command or pragmatic rule, if the code is to be transformed into acts, affects must be engaged, orchestrated, and bound to it.

Here postmodern theory adopts and inflects an insight from Romanticism. Its emphasis on the importance of rituals, exercises, drills, and litanies is one example of how postmodern theory attends to the affective and aesthetic dimensions of political and ethical life and thought. In so doing, postmodern theory also connects to religious traditions (see Coles, 1997).

Micropolitics and Macropolitics

Postmodern theorizing draws attention to the socially transformative potential of micropolitical practices. It insists upon the connections between micropolitics and macropolitics. Deleuze and Guattari use the term micropolitics to name a realm of activities that have public effect—that help to shape the tenor of collective life—but which do not fit into the traditional paradigms of political action. Micropolitical activities are not official acts of presidents or parliaments and they are often not aimed directly at elections or legislative agendas. Rather, the key agencies of micropolitics are television shows, films, military training, professional meetings, worship services, clubs, neighbourhood gangs, and Internet mobilizations; and its key targets are bodily affect, social tempers, political moods, and cultural sensibilities. The emphasis upon micropolitics issues from the belief that there is an indispensably somatic and affective dimension to political (and all other human) action, including macropolitical action. Partly a response to Marxist criticisms, the notion of micropolitics is a more intersubjective and collectivist version of Foucault’s notion of technologies or practices of the self, which he defined as the means through which humans effect ‘a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conducts, and way of being, so as to transform themselves’ (1988: 18).

Micropolitics aims to reform, refine, intensify, or discipline the emotions, aesthetic impulses, moral and moralistic urges, and diffuse moods that enter into (and make possible) political programmes, party affiliations, ideological commitments, and policy preferences. Why do postmodern theorists advocate working experimentally upon such affections? Because to do so is ultimately, though indirectly and unpredictably, to alter the microsettings in which we participate and to help determine the macropolitical possibilities. Moods and affects are also said to be relevant to public life in that they may provide the motivational energy required to enact intellectual commitments or political priorities—to transform them into actualities. Again, the idea is to give the affective dimension of thought and action its due: politics in the broadest sense—as action that makes a public difference—requires not only intintellectual things (like principles, programmes of reform, visions of the future) but also embodied sensibilities that organize affects into a style and generate the impetus to enact principles, programmes, and visions (Curtis, 1999).

Individualists, iconoclasts, and queer theorists employ micropolitics in order to render themselves resistant to the lure of conformity and the demand for normality. Transcendentalists in the tradition of Henry Thoreau engage in a series of practical exercises—including nature walks, perceptual attentive ness to small details of ordinary things, journal writing—in order to foster a more deliberate life (Bennett, 2002). Ecospiritualists advocate meditation and wilderness excursions as ways of enhancing the experience of the interdependency of all things. Religious activists engage in prayer or church attendance as ways of disciplining the body and developing good character. Deleuze and Guattari use micropolitical techniques to experiment with becoming otherwise and to forestall the reduction of becoming to being. Postmodern political theory acknowledges that micropolitics can be pursued on behalf of different aims and a wide variety of political ideologies.

Disciplinary Power and the Possibility of Freedom

One influential postmodern insight is that the power exercised over citizens and subjects does not only issue from identifiable loci like the state and its laws. It also operates more diffusely and more insidiously by means of normal, everyday practices which have no particular author and instead present themselves as simply the way things are done. Foucault describes the first as a juridical model of power and the second as disciplinary, normalizing or bio-power. His early genealogies of criminality, madness, and sexuality sensitized readers to the medical, educational, military, and even architectural practices that function to inscribe norms right onto the body (Dumm, 1996). Terry Eagleton describes this second kind of power, which operates primarily not by means of prohibition but rather by constituting the very subjectivity of its objects, when he warns that the Romantic attempt to conjoin reason with sentiment had the effect of inscribing power ‘in the minutiae of subjective experience’ and thus it participated in the larger historical trend whereby power is shifting its location from centralized institutions to the silent, invisible depths of the subject itself (1990: 20, 27).

But this focus on the pervasiveness of power does not mean that there is no such thing, from a postmodern perspective, as freedom. In his later work Foucault, for example, affirmed a project of aesthetic self-inscription and suggested that sensibility was susceptible, to some degree, to self-conscious craftsmanship. This craftsmanship is not reducible to those reflexive arcs by which one uses new thoughts to revise old beliefs, though that is part of it. It also folds specific postures, sounds, and images into that process, so as to impinge more actively upon the affective register of being. If the point of Foucault’s early genealogies is to expose the normal individual as a ruse of power, and to disrupt our association of self-discipline with freedom, the point of his later work is to enunciate the more complex thesis that there is no self without power and discipline, and no power or discipline that does not also harbour opportunities for freedom in terms of arts of the self.

What kind of freedom can coexist with ubiquitous, productive power? A postmodern notion of freedom is not the Kantian idea of an autonomous rational will; neither is it the Romantic revision of Kant wherein an aesthetic modulation of the psyche allows the rational will to kick in. Freedom is resignified by locating it in a relationship with historically situated rationality and human embodiment. The goal is to find ways to promote a higher degree of self-direction in and against a system of disciplinary power. Freedom is not defined as something that rises above desire, sensibility and feeling; it consists rather in a reflective—and often agonistic kind of heteronomy. It is the recognition of one’s implication in a sticky web of social and physical relations within which also reside vital (although unpredictable and contested) opportunities for self-direction. What counts as self-direction depends upon the particularities of what one has become and the sort of obstacles and opportunities culturally available. Sometimes self-direction is direct, by self-command or self-exertion; more often it is pursued through arts, techniques, and strategies applied by the self to a corporeal sensibility below the level of direct intellectual control (Connolly, 1999). The experience of freedom is vibrant; one experiences the exhilaration of making a mark upon what one comes to be. But this sense of liberation does not carry one above the world of sensibility or power. It consists, rather, in tentative explorations of the outer edges of existing regimes of subjectivity and intersubjectivity.

For postmodern political theorists, these engagements with the frontier reveal the possibility of new configurations of identity. These new configurations are still a function of an institutional matrix; they are still implicated in historically contingent practices of power, and they continue to contend with a body that never fully coincides with the subjectivity available to it. The ape in Kafka’s story, ‘A report to an academy’ (1971) makes a similar point. Caught and caged for exhibition, Rotpeter decided to become human, for only then would he be let out: ‘Freedom,’ he says, ‘was not what I wanted. Only a way out; right or left, or in any direction; I made no other demand’ (1971: 253-4). The apeman seeks not unconditional freedom, only a way to transform his situation into a place with more room to exercise his potential for self-direction. Kafka here articulates a postmodern conception of freedom.

Postmodern political theorizing typically proceeds, then, on the assumption that moments of critical freedom are internal to a system of power. Power

pervades the very conceptual apparatus that seeks to negotiate its terms, including the subject position of the critic; and… this implication of the terms of criticism in the field of power is not the advent of a nihilistic relativism incapable of furnishing norms, but, rather, the very precondition of a politically engaged critique. (Butler, 1995: 38-9; see also Spivak, 1999)

Rhizomatic Structures and Lines of Flight

In the onto-story of a world of becoming, things are moving at different speeds and metamorphoses abound; matter is mobile and thus so are humans and their cultural forms. Communitarian political theory tends to view this as a lamentable and dangerous characterization of social life: it undermines the legitimacy of traditional moral codes and dims the prospect of achieving consensus on a basic set of norms and values. The fear is that the postmodern story worsens the postmodern condition, characterized as a state of fragmentation plagued by a crisis of meaning. Some postmodern theorists themselves embrace this diagnosis, but others view it as overstated by virtue of the contrast model of harmony it implicitly invokes. The contemporary world will surely appear as fragmented and in crisis if it is compared to a lost, golden age of social coherence, unquestioned morality, and pervasive faith in a single, transcendent God. To question the historical plausibility of this tale of community and cosmological coherence, however, is to see things differently. Postmodern theorists find the nostalgic metanarrative to be inappropriate, even as a regulative ideal, in a world where multicultural societies are the norm, where technological developments increase the speed with which social transformation occurs, and where peoples with diverse onto-stories coexist on the same territory and under the same government.

William Connolly does not, for example, support a world of fragmentation as opposed to unity, but advocates a kind of pluralism where social groups with divergent moral traditions and competing ontological convictions form pragmatic and partial alliances. Attentive to the constitutive tension between the need for order and the value of disruption/ reformation, he moves pluralism away from the image of a cultural centre surrounded by minorities at the margin and toward a vision of public life as populated by multiple minorities with cross cutting allegiances along ‘lines of religion, linguistic habit, economic interest, irreligion, ethnicity, sensuality, gender performances, and moral sources of inspiration’ (Connolly, 1999: 92). He calls the relations between and within these minorities rhizomatic rather than fragmenting.

A rhizome is a botanical term for a particular kind of root structure: a non-linear and web-like organization, like that of bulbs, tubers, stems and filaments, in contrast to a single tap-root. A rhizomatic politics does not have as its regulative ideal a general consensus. It is inspired, rather, by the vision of mobile constellations whose members support common policies but not necessarily all for the same reasons, and who attempt to render themselves ‘more open to responsive engagement with alternative faiths, sensualities, gender practices, ethnicities, and so on’ (1999: 146). Practising a generous ‘ethos of engagement,’ citizens would strive to acknowledge the contestability of any moral source or onto-story, including their own (Connolly, 1995).

Critical theorists, like communitarians, are often wary of postmodern theory and the postmodern condition in so far as the former aggravates the latter and both allow global capital and commodified culture to fill the void left by stable, local ways of life. Postmodern theorists themselves are divided on this issue. Some emphasize the dangers of a world of becoming, e.g. the continual emergence of tensions between a shifting array of social groups, the endless need to renegotiate meanings, and the tendency of power relations to congeal into hegemonic, i.e. capitalist, formations. Others emphasize the liberating potential and marvels of this evolving world. Often the debate exists within theorists as well as between them. The question is to what extent the world of diverse becomings meets its match in a culture where the lifeworld has been colonized by a homogenizing commodity culture.

A good example here is Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire (2000), which attempts to combine Marxist insights about the structural impediments to social justice with those of Deleuze and Guattari about the potential ‘lines of flight’ within every structure, i.e. the omnipresence of ‘paths along which things change or become transformed into something else’ (Patton, 2000: 86). Hardt and Negri transform the old notion of the proletariat, defined in terms of industrial wage work, into the more protean and multi-class force called the multitude. Likewise, the logic of capitalism becomes something more flexible and impersonal—and thus both more diabolical and less competent; it is replaced by empire. ‘The multitude is the real productive force of our social world, whereas Empire is a mere apparatus of capture that lives only off the vitality of the multitude’ (Hardt and Negri, 2000: 62). But industrial, intellectual, aesthetic, and communicative labourers ‘cannot be completely subjugated to the laws of capitalist accumulation—at every moment they overflow and shatter the bounds of measure’ (2000: 396-7; see also Shapiro, 2000).

Some postmodern theory discerns a limited but real potential for justice and freedom within market and commodity-centred economies. It is unlikely to view capitalism as a closed system, with no way out short of revolutionary violence. It tentatively affirms the ambivalent excitement about capitalism’s transformative possibilities expressed by Marx himself (Robbins, 1999: 35). This postmodernism does not necessarily advocate a post-market economy, and it rejects the image of global capital as a monster devouring everything in its path as both empirically inaccurate and politically disabling:

The impossibility of a global order must be affirmed… If we can accept that it is impossible to subsume every individual being, place and practice to a universal law… then it will follow that the local cannot be fully interior to the global, nor can its inventive potential be captured by any singular imagining [of the economy]. (Gibson-Graham, 2003)

Such work aims to deny capitalism quite the degree of efficacy and totalizing power that its critics (and defenders) often attribute to it, and to exploit the positive ethical potential secreted within it (Bennett, 2001). Again, such analyses work with a particular image of power, in which ‘there is always something that flows or flees, that escapes… the overcoding machine’ (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987: 216). Though ‘capitalists may be the master of surplus value and its distribution… they do not dominate the flows from which surplus value derives’ (1987: 226).

The notion of lines of flight that persist within the densest of networks of power—or of the subsistence of a virtual world within the actual, or of the possibility of forging rhizomatic connections between people who do not share a common moral framework—reveals a link between postmodern theory and the political hopefulness of the cultural revolution of the 1960s. Postmodern theory affirms the value of idealizations, even if they are regulative ideals not fully realizable. Romand Coles, for example, defends a post-secular, nontheistic ethic of generosity even though its practice must always fall ‘short of the highest solicitation to give’ (1997: 81). Foucault suggests that political freedom is enabled by the impossible desire for self-direction and the dream of a beautifully designed subjectivity. Derrida has faith in a justice that is a ‘kind of reserve which is not exhausted by any particular concept of justice’:

On the one hand, you have the law which is deconstructible; that is, the set of legislations… which are… deconstructible because we change them, we improve them, we want to improve them, we can improve them… On the other hand, justice, in the name of which one deconstructs the law, is not deconstructible. (2001: 6, 9)

Like all approaches to political theory, postmodernism has developed a distinctive vocabulary, but perhaps more than other approaches it has refused ‘to translate its insights directly into an idiom compatible with the traditional cognitive machinery of political thought’ (White, 1991: 19). New modes of political organization seem to require new ways of thinking: the experience of alienation that accompanies the encounter with a foreign language can have positive political effects. If there is a vision of politics common to postmodern theories, it is of a political realm that renegotiates the age-old debate between being and becoming in order to give more room to becoming and to render itself more open to change and democratic in operation.