Alan N. Shapiro, Visiting Professor in Transdisciplinary Design, Folkwang University of the Arts, Essen, Germany

Blog and project archive about transdisciplinary design, media theory and creative coding

Richard Rorty on Radicalism, Liberalism, and Poetic Language

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I was very impressed reading something that Richard Rorty wrote about revolutionaries in his essay “The Contingency of Community” ( in the book “Contingency, irony, and solidarity”).  Rorty argues very cogently for a kind of “impossible” deconstructive synthesis of radicalism and liberalism. Western society needs to be revolutionized, Rorty implies, but in the context of respecting the achievements, and many of the institutions of, liberalism. Rorty distinguishes his position from those of Foucault and Habermas. Foucault is a radical (or what Rorty calls an “ironist”), but is uninterested in being a liberal. Habermas is a liberal who has lost interest in being a radical ironist (Habermas’ reconcilation with Derrida shortly before the latter’s death indicates, however, that Habermas may have changed on this). Rorty’s position is that we need to be both radical and liberal.  Here’s an extensive passage from the essay (Cambridge University Press, pp.60-61) that particularly resonated with me:

“The heroes of liberal society are the strong poet and the utopian revolutionary… [they] are protesting in the name of the society itself against those aspects of the society which are unfaithful to its own self-image… [This idea] seems to cancel out the difference between the revolutionary and the reformer. But one can define the ideally liberal society as one in which this difference is canceled out. A liberal society is one whose ideals can be fulfilled by persuasion rather than by force, by reform rather than revolution, by the free and open encounters of present linguistic and other practices with suggestions for new practices. But this is to say that an ideal liberal society is one which has no purpose except freedom, no goal except a willingness to see how such encounters go and to abide by the outcome. It has no purpose except to make life easier for poets and revolutionaries while seeing to it that they make life harder for others only by words, and not deeds.”

The last phrase is enormously interesting, but one wonders why Rorty did not distinguish here between words and violence. “Deeds” is a rather imprecise term. What does that include? Surely not all revolutionary “deeds” are unethical? On the other hand, the revolutionizing of Western culture via a radical daily praxis of poetry and words is  a fascinating idea. It reminds me of Derrida’s Différance, implemented as a revolutionary strategy.

Interlude: An example from sexuality perhaps illustrating Rorty’s distinction between words and deeds. To state it in a simplified way, prior to the 1970s our culture recognized only heterosexuality as legitimate. This was very oppressive to a lot of people. Now we have a new system of straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transsexual. This system, while a huge gain for human  freedom compared with the previous system, is becoming the new oppressor for a lot of people who are polysexual. I think that we are all polysexual. Desires and variations are real. Identities are security blankets in a society of alienation. But, following Rorty’s principle, it is probably much better to talk about polysexuality than to openly practice it. Practicing polysexuality might actually border on some kind of violence.

Différance is a French term coined by Jacques Derrida and homophonous with the word différenceDifférance encompasses a number of polysemous features governing the production of textual meaning. Words and signs can never fully conjure what their authors intend them to mean, but can only make appeals to additional words. Meaning is forever “deferred” or postponed through an endless chain of signifiers. (The previous four sentences are adopted from Wikipedia).

The subversive, differential play of language. The free play of discourse. The functioning of the “revaluation or dislocation chains” of human languages. The (negative) différance which Derrida in some sense claims to be a force or quality possessed by all languages which is subversive of “metaphysics” (the deeply-ingrained philosophical-cultural system of binary oppositions of the West). The power of poetics. A force which is perhaps another name for God. We must understand textuality in a much broader sense than merely books – understand textuality as the history of the world. Différance is a profound theory of the liveliness of language.

One Response

Hi Alan,
Great website; small comment regarding your Rorty quote and comment regarding Rorty not distinguishing between words and violence – he does deal with it later in the text in the two chapters “Orwell on Cruelty” and “Nabokov on Cruelty”. Great to see both Rorty and Ouspensky mentioned on your site although I do believe that Tertium Organum should feature regarding recommended reading for those as yet unfamiliar with Ouspensky.
I look forward to exploring your site at more length later on,
Regards,
Mary