Postmodernism, Literary Criticism

Jurgen Habermas, "Modernity: An Unfinished Project?"

I. General introduction:

1. a student of Theodor Adorno, and a member of the Frankfurt School of critical theory.
2. Habermas is decidedly Kantian in his dedication to reason, ethics, and moral philosophy.(source)
3 . The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1962; Trans. Thomas Burger; Cambridge: MIT Press, 1989)". . . . In that work and arguably since then as well, Habermas' political intent was to further 'the project of Enlightenment" by the reconstruction of a public sphere in which reason might prevail, not the instrumental reason of much modern practice but the critical reason that represents the best of the democratic tradition. Habermas defined the public sphere as a domain of uncoerced conversation oriented toward a pragmatic accord. (Poster)
4. His position came under attack by
-- poststructuralists like Lyotard who questioned the emancipatory potentials of its model of consensus through rational debate.
-- Nancy Fraser 'gender blind.'
-- Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge -- articulating the notion of an oppositional public sphere, specifically that of the proletariat.
5. The "Modernity" essay:

"The occasion of the essay aligns Habermas with Adorno; yet the content of the lecture aligns him with precicely that rationalist tradition in Enlghtenment of which Adorno was enormously sceptical. Here, as in his later work of the 1980s, Habermas sees the possibility of salvaging Enlightenment rationality. The project of modernity done by eighteenth-century philosophers 'consisted of their efforts to develop objective science, universal morality and law, and autonomous art according to their inner logic', their aim being, according to Habermas here, 'the rational organization of everyday social life.' (Thomas Docerty Postmodernism 95)

Modernism "... held the extravagant expectation that the arts and sciences would further not only the control of the forces of nature but also the understanding of self and world, moral progress, justice in social institutions, and even human happiness."

II. Main Idea & Questions for Discussion:
Main Idea:
Habermas thinks that the problems of cultural modernity lies more in social modernization than in the modernity's project. Although the latter has its aporia (failure to connect with the lifeworld), it cannot be continued with proper appriation of expert cultures.

1. How does Habermas defined social modernization and cultural modernity, and their relations to modernity? How does "neoconservatism" misunderstand the relation between cultural modernity and social modernization?

2. Do you agree with Habermas that the modernity project is unfinished, but not a thing of the past? What is his way of carrying on the project? Is there any other way for it to be further developed in the postmodern society?

3. In other words, is 'public sphere' or rational differentiation possible today?

III. Outline

Habermas' questions: 'Is modernity as passe as the postmodernists claim it is?'

<Defining modernity in terms of its relations to the past and--in aesthetic modern mentality--its changed sense of time and space.>
The Old and The New

1. The 'modern'--change from the old to the new-- is not necessarily a rejection of the past.

-- "With varying contents, the term modernity repeatedly expresses the consciousness of an era that relates itself to the past of classical antiquity in order to conceive itself as the result of a transition from the old to the new.

-- Antiquity as a normative model --> until "querelle des anciens et des modernes" -- dispute between the ancient [philosophers] and the modern [philosophers]

-- Enlightenment and 19th century rojmanticism-- ". . . this romanticism produces a radicalized consciousness of modernity that detached itself from all historical connections and retained only an abstract opposition to tradition and history as a whole."

-- "Classical has always meant what survives through the ages. The emphatically modern no longer derives this force from the authority of a past age; it derives it soley from the authenticity of a contemporary relevance that is now in the past."

The Aesthetic Modern Mentality
1. "aesthetic modernity"

-- characterized by an altered consciousness of time.
-- "This consciousness is expressed in the spatial metaphor of a vanguard --that is, an avant-gatrde that scouts unknown territory, exposing itself to the risks of sudden and shocking encounters, conquering an as-yet uninhabited future, and orienting itself in an as-yet unsurveyed terrain." (159)
-- the foraward orientation, the anticipation of an undefined, contingent future, and the cult of the New mean the glorification of a present that repeatedly gives birth to new, subjectively defined pasts.
-- in the celebration of dynamism is the longing for an immaculate and unchanging present."As a self-negating moment, modernism is a 'yearning for true presence.'" (159)
--> abstract opposition to history, which is no longer structured as an organized process of transmission that guarantees continuity.
--> [Aesthetic Modern Mentality] rebels against everything normative bestowed from Tradition; "explodes" the continuum of history.

2. the failure of avant-garde art

Daniel Bell locate the origins of the crisis manifested in advanced Western societies -- "a split between culture and society, between cultural modernity and the demands of the economic and administrative systems.'

-- Bell thinks that avant-garde art has "penetrated the values of daily life and infected the lifeworld with the modernist mentality. "

-- "the seductive force" of Modernism --

1. the dominance of the principle of unrestricted self-realization, 2. the demand for authentic expression of the self, 3. the subjectivism of an overstimulated sensibility, 4. unleashing hedonistic motives that are incompatible with the discipline of professional life . . .

<the mistaken view of neomodernism>
Cultural Modernity and Social Modernization

1. Cultural Modernity (oppositional mentatlity) misunderstood and connected with its opposite p. 161; blamed for the consequences of social modernization;

2. the consequences of social modernization: altered attitudes towards work, consumer habits, levels of demand, leisure-time orientation--> the crisis of motivation, lack of social identification, incapacity of obedience, narcissism, withdrawal from competition for status.

<aporias within cultural modernity, or modernity's project>
The Project of Enlightenment

1. modernity's project:
-- rational differentiation: separation of the substantive reason expressed in religious and metaphysical worldviews into three moments: science and scholarship, morality and art, or the cognitive-instrumental, the moral-practical, and the aesthetic-expressive. (162)
-- differentiation means both specilization and detachment from the stream of tradition. (163)

--optimistic: applying expert cultures to rational organization of living conditions and social relations: "a release of the cognitive potentials thus accumulated from their esoteric high forms and their utlization in praxis" (162)

-- e.g. differentiated reason: Karl Popper (scientific criticism), Paul Lorenzen (artificial language), Adorno (critical content in art).

-- negative consequences: growing distance between these expert culture and the general public. --> the lifeworld impoverished.

--> attempts to 'sublate' the expert cultures.

* Habermas thinks that while the optimism surrounding the Enlightenment project has waned, the problem which motivated the project remains. What problem is that?

<example of autonomy and sublation in art>
Kant and the Autonomy of the Aesthetic

-- In the aesthetic domain, there is the judgement of taste, the free play of the imagination,
-- in terms of enjoyment -- disinterested pleasure: "a state of mind evoked by the play of -- in terms of artistic production

-- the genius or artist 'gives authentic expression to what he experiences in his concentrated dealings with a decentered subjectivity that is released from the constraints of knowledge and action." the representational capacities, a state set in motion aesthetically."

-- two conditions for aesthetic autonomy:

-- 1. the institutionalization of art production independent of the market and of a nonpurposeful enjoyment of art mediated by criticism;

-- 2. aestheticist self-understanding: 'the media of representation and the techniques of production advance . . . become aesthetic objects in their own right.'

e.g. l'art pour l'art -- art for the sake of art

<detachment --> lack of reconciliation>
The False Sublation of Culture

1. Surealism p. 165 'at tempts to eliminate the discrepancy between art and life, fiction and practice, and illusion and reality. . . " Theodor Adorno: surrealism "renounces art, without, however, being able to shake it off"

2. the "double errors" of false sublation:

-- 'When the containers of an autonomously developed cultural sphere are shattered, its contents disintegrate. When meaning is desublimated and form destructured, nothing is left."

-- replaces one form of onesidedness and one abstration with another:
The process of reaching understanding in the lifeworld require the whole breadth of cultural transmission. Hence a rationalised everyday life could not be redeemed from the rigidity of cultrual impoverishment. . .

--e.g. to aestheticize politics

3. sublation of philosophy -- -->

--e.g. to replace politics with moral rigorism or to subjugate politics to dogmatic doctrines

Alternatives to the False Sublation of Culture

1. art criticism as a bridge between expert culture and lifeworld-- criticism concerned with life-problems, or used to illuminate a life-historical situation. ". . . revitalises the need-interpretations and normative expectations and alters the way in wihch these moments refere to one another." (167)

2. appropriation of expert culture e.g. Paul Weiss; a group of German workers;

In examples like these, where the expert culture is appropriated from the perspectives of the lifeworld, something of the intention of the doomed Surrealist revolt, and . . .has been preserved.

3. social modernization be guided into other, noncapitalist directions, and if the lifeworld can develop, on its own, institutions that will lie outside the borders of the inherent dynamics of the economic and administrative systems.

Three Conservatisms p. 168

-- "young conservatives" -- "transpose the spontaneous forces of the imagination, the experience of the self, and affectivity onto the sphere of the distant and archaic; set up a dualistic opposition between instrumental reason and a principle accessible only through evocation. . .(e.g. Derrida)

--"old conservatives" -- a return to positions prior to modernity with the use of Aristotle or a renewal of cosmological ethics; e.g. Leo Strauss

-- "new conservatives" -- welcome the development of modern science as long as it overstep its own sphere only to further technical progress, capitalistic growth, and rational administration. For the rest, they advocate a politics of defusing the explosive contents of cultural modernity.

Charles Jencks, The Postmodern Reader, pp. 158-169.

The Jurgen Habermas Web Resource

Habermas Online


Poster, Mark. "CyberDemocracy: Internet and the Public Sphere."

Does Internet Create Democracy ""