National Policies of Cultural Recognition and the Asymptotes of Reason

September, 1999


I begin with what might seem an indulgent meditation on a mathematic form. Let the above curve represent Understanding, the rate of whose slope is determined by a specific form of communicative action. And let the axes, x and y, represent respectively Truth and Goodness. At every historical period, a, b, c, our communicative calculus appears to have driven either or both horizontal and verticle slopes closer to their respective axes. But even as the slopes move towards Truth and Goodness, reflexive reason threatens to distabilizes the certainty of our progress. If we reflect on "a" from the perspective of "b", or "ab" from "c", -- that is, if we reflect historically, -- we must acknowledge that then we were as we are now, certain that we were moving even though, we now see, that we were as far from truth and goodness as ever. We quickly reassure ourselves. Now we know better and, in knowing, we have pushed ourselves away from this previous moment. Reason has punctured our blindness, allowed us to diagnose the forces driving us off target. We have calculated the social pressures below these forces and mapped their ideological permutations. All these recalibrations were made possible by the same communicative action we swear is determining the slope of reason. With a lot of swearing, we pull our lines closer to the axes where we wish them to anchor. Of course this has all taken time. And in time, even now, we begin to see the feintest outlines of a new diagram forming, driving back the slope.

In the first section of this essay I examine the various forms and guises that this mathematical imaginary takes in Habermas's, Rawls's and Rorty's accounts of public reason in liberal multicultural (or pluralist) democracies. It is the contention of this essay that these theorists ground their defense of liberal political culture in a belief that democratic forms of public reason move asymptotically towards some positively defined axis (whether truth, goodness, understanding, betterment). And, not only theorists. This creed of faith connects past and present liberal discussions of state and public aspects of cultural difference, nationalisms and internationalisms. Presidents and parliamentarians, public spokespersons and their putative publics point to and act on the belief that a certain form of public reason will eventually lead to a truthful, -- or, more moderately, -- a better form of national and international culture. Whether defined narrowly as a political culture or more broadly as a moral and philosophical culture, a form of communicative practice, -- reasoned and rational public debate, -- is thought to get us somewhere; to curve understanding towards a positively valued limit. We may never reach this ultimate (or, final) truth or good, barred in the last instance by exactly that which allows us to approach it, the humanness of ourhuman reason. But through our public use of reason, we inch toward infinity.

Drawing on public debates and public discourse in Australia and the United States, the second section of this essay compares this public profession of faith to actual instances in which liberals confront a moment of fundamental difference within a multicultural national context. In these moments, a very different liberal creed of faith appears; namely, that principled public debate must give way to a liberal ought and, not only give way, but that this ought should be protected from critical judgment. The essay uses these moments to reconsider the generative grounds of liberal accounts of the directionality of public reason through the reconsideration of their accounts of subjectivity and textuality. Habermas and Rorty, in particular, represent important attempts to integrate a pragmatic theory of language to a practical theory of liberal national and international multiculturalism (see also Dickerstein 1998). This essay asks whether the communicative model underpinning their accounts of the subject of public reason and public intolerance is "reasonable" in a specific sense, whether it brings to bear on their account of public reason a reasonable account of metasemiotics and subjectivity.

Why does it matter that a mathematical imaginary underpins liberal accounts of the movement of public reason in a period characterized by a new level if not mode of social and cultural desseminations and associations (Harvey 1989; Appadurai 1996; Ong 1999)? I would suggest this mathematical imaginary matters because the legitimacy it provides commonsense state and public approaches to national forms of cultural and social alterity. For convenience sake we can turn to Michael Walzer's recent small book, On Toleration (1997). Walzer reminds us of a certain commonplace among liberal theorists, that all liberals acknowledge that "we choose within limits," that few would ever be so daring as to advance "an unconstrained relativism," and that not every act should be tolerated (Walzer 1997, 5-6). Then Walzer does what liberal theorists often do, he sets the problem aside. In actual worlds of difference, however, the problem cannot be set aside. Citizen/subjects are confronted with instances of what they experience as a fundamental difference, -- an encounter with the abhorrent, inhuman, bestial. What do we do in these moments? How do we frame our actions? As often as not liberal states and the liberal citizens composing those states mark these moments as beyond reason. Then they murder physically or discursively.

It is not the contention of this essay that these moments can be avoided or that they cannot be avoided, that they should or shouldn't be eliminated. In one sense, I do not go far beyond where Walzer himself goes. I do not doubt that all subjects of language (textuality) experience certain cultural or social forms as marking the limits of understanding. And that, in these moments liberal subjects must chose between saving what they consider to be their lives or the inhuman lives they believe they are facing. But it is the contention of this essay that if liberal theory faced the murderous rage more fundamental to liberalism than the proceduralisms of its reason and if it acknowledged that nothing good was born from this murder then moments of fundamental difference might bring into being a new form of multiculturalism subjectivity. Perhaps this multiculturalism and its state institutions would become post-liberal in its dwelling in the profoundness of all moments of annihilation. Certainly, if we acknowledged we murder others without redemption, a new form of liberalism would be forced into the world, with an ethics of murder displacing our tired game of customized relativisms.

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