ABSTRACT

The relationship of modernity to postmodernity – the relationship within which I wish to locate this paper on history and ethics – is a difficult one to pin down. But one way, just one way of doing it, is to see postmodernism as directing a series of radical critiques against the ‘experiment of modernity’, against that post-Enlightenment experiment of trying to establish, in bourgeois and proletarian forms, ‘human rights communities’ on a global scale, an experiment that arguably failed on its own terms amidst the genocides, the gulags and the death-camps of the twentieth century. And that postmodernity was and is – to use Elizabeth Ermarth’s phrase1 – the ‘whatever it was’ that came after the breakdown of that experiment, postmodernism being that condition of postmodernity raised to the level of consciousness more generally and, more particularly, to theoretical levels (Ermarth 2004, p. 68). On this reading postmodernism is thus, in important part, about clearing the decks of all those modernist assumptions that might prevent a new emancipating/

empowering enlightenment ‘to come’ – an enlightenment ‘otherwise’ than that of its eighteenth-century forerunner – such that postmodernism so conceived can be regarded as a critical retrospective of the ‘Western Tradition’ (and particularly the Western Tradition in its late-modernist forms) as its constituent elements were sifted through to see if, amidst all the clutter – all the damaged ‘goods’ – anything might be salvaged that might still be useful for this new social ‘to come’. Very little was. It is this, I think, that explains why – before too many positive proposals

about how to figure new possibilities such that things might begin again after modernity and after the postmodern retrospective we are arguably living through – postmodernism is very much about deaths, is very much about endings: postmodernism as a kind of ‘post-mortem’. There is a long list of such deaths and such endings in the various literatures: the death of God, the death of man, the death of the subject, the death of the author, the death of centres; the end of metaphysics, the end of the phallologocentric tradition, the end of onto-theology, the end of epistemology, the end of progress, the end of ideology, the end of poetry and philosophy after Auschwitz, the end of foundational ethics and the end – amidst even more endings – of history, too.2