While modernity has been associated with notions of progress and unrealized utopian visions, its effectiveness as a tool for emancipation remains controversial. By examining different philosophical perspectives, including Kantian ideals, Marxist paradigms, critical theories, post-structuralism, decolonial studies, and post-humanism, this article seeks to answer why the modern approach to emancipation is contentious and consider alternative frameworks that may offer new avenues for liberation.
For some, the concept of “modernity” is intertwined with the positivist notion of leaving behind something outdated and non-functional, paving the way for the progress of future generations through technological advancements [Hobsbawm, 1995]. Others view it as an unrealized utopian project [Habermas, 1992] or as a system that collapsed under the weight of insoluble contradictions and inequalities from the previous order [Adorno, 2002]. However, the focus of this article diverges from assessing the effectiveness of the Enlightenment project, as countless philosophers have done so before. Instead, it hones in on specific claims and demands that warrant the foregrounding of “modern” thought.
One of the key ideals of the Enlightenment posits that the modern, rational subject can discover a realm of life that transcends the shadows of superstition, religion, and political tyranny, enabling the attainment of autonomy. Immanuel Kant, for instance, located this sphere on the impartial grounds of the Judgment of Taste, navigating the space between sensuousness (practical knowledge) and reason (theoretical knowledge), thereby transcending subjective biases. On the other hand, within the Marxist paradigm, the potential for emancipation emerges through a rational critical environment (reflection) followed by the eradication of repressive ideologies. The debate surrounding emancipation continues to gain momentum, as Walter Benjamin aptly observed: “the change is so rapid that it becomes a form of changelessness.” Given the controversy surrounding the “modern” approach as a tool of emancipation, it is crucial to examine alternative perspectives, including critical, post-structuralist, decolonial, and posthuman frameworks, — to shed light on the possibilities and limitations of emancipatory potential.
If we trace the origins of the Enlightenment, we encounter its fundamental association with the “light of reason.” However, to truly comprehend the meaning of “reason” in contemporary terms, we must embark on an exploration. The Enlightenment exalted reason, elevating rational thinking as the most desirable form of knowledge. Yet, in the dawn of modernity and the subsequent emergence of a secularized social fabric, the concept of reason has undergone significant expansion, leading to the division of individuals into disparate belief groups, each seemingly devoid of a shared morality or means of communication. Immanuel Kant would offer a counterargument to this notion, as he contended that the pursuit of a new rationality should be centered around agreed ethical conduct, epitomized by the “Judgment of Taste”, emanating from the fusion of knowledge and a specific mode of reflection [Biesta, 2008, p. 94]. Kant’s emancipatory maxim, characterized by the notion of “as if,” centers on the romantic belief in beauty as a symbol of unified morality, harmonizing all cognitive faculties. Within this framework, aesthetic experiences bestow upon the observer an autonomous dimension, rooted in a subjective sense of belonging, known as “sensus communis”. Subsequently, this concept of “enlarged thought” as a realm of freepublic discourse found continuity in the works of Hannah Arendt, who argued that the political thinking of the collective enables the perception of diverse perspectives.
Nonetheless, an inherent predicament arises: the impossibility of empirically proving or logically demonstrating universal agreement on beauty. For instance, Marquard dismisses the notion of emancipation, citing the clash within reason, as “the concept of practical reason is incapable of attaining an emancipated life, as desire always remains subjective.” Thus, when critiquing aesthetic judgments, the attainment of consensus through rational discourse, as envisioned by Kant, becomes an idealized scenario of communication. While taking into account the bloody history of the last century, which includes two world wars and many civil conflicts, it is worth recalling Tzvetan Todorov’s assertion that our world today cannot return to the ideals of the Enlightenment, given its fundamental disparities with our present reality. Nevertheless, in critiquing the Enlightenment, we may find ourselves remaining loyal to its ideals [Todorov, 2008].
Kantian aesthetic ideals, with their attribution of an autonomous dimension to art and the power of social reconciliation, underwent a transformative journey into the realm of avant-garde emancipation. Emerging from the depths and issuing a scathing critique of the bourgeois nature of l’art pour l’art, the avant-garde became a potent force for societal transformation in the early 20th century—a force intricately linked to the Schillerian and Romantic reinterpretation of Greek art as a communal way of life [Niculet, 2010]. Within this framework, art transcended its traditional confines and became a vibrant social public space, with the artist assuming the role of a public asset [Hobsbawm, 1995].
For radical avant-garde movements like the futurists and constructivists, artistic production was intimately intertwined with the praxis of life and an active social role. They fervently endeavored to construct new social structures ex nihilo, guided by their audacious visions [Burger, 1974]. However, not all avant-gardes weathered the tests of time, wars, repressions, and other historical upheavals. As Peter Burger observed, the avant-garde gradually succumbed to excessive socialization, losing its artistic essence and distancing itself from its critical roots. Consequently, the original aspirations of social freedom and equality were often deferred or forgotten, leading Loredana Niculeț to assert that “subjectivity has survived in contemporary art,” signifying the waning credibility of the romantic notion of art’s autonomy [Niculeț, 2010].
The failure of the avant-garde emancipatory project, borrowing its ideological framework from the Kantian model, can be attributed primarily to an ontological flaw in understanding the impact of aesthetic freedom on social equality and liberation. Moreover, the increasing detachment of art from the praxis of everyday life created a rift between the abstract art world and the lower, more numerous classes. This realization became evident to subsequent generations of cultural theorists and philosophers, such as Lyotard, Deleuze, and Guattari, who recognized that art’s inseparability from sociality extended to libidinal economics and other forms of social exploitation and repression. Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello’s “New Spirit of Capitalism” shed light on how the demands for autonomy voiced by the new movements of the 1960s became co-opted by the development of the post-Fordist networked economy, morphing into new mechanisms of control. However, despite these challenges, certain artists continue to harbor unwavering faith in the transformative potential of art, devising countercultural strategies. Notable figures like Barbara Kruger, Hans Haacke, Santiago Sierra, Andrea Fraser, and Christian Phillipp Mueller persist in pushing the boundaries of critical artistic expression. The destiny of such critical statements takes the form of reactionary reflections that engage, to varying degrees, with political realities—an exploration that will be further elucidated in the subsequent chapter.
The concept of freedom traces its roots back to Roman law, where liberation was seen as a performative act rather than an inherent property or pre-existing state of an object. Gert Biesta argues that this notion of emancipation, characterized by the pursuit of autonomy, holds a central role in the modern educational landscape. Education, according to Biesta, goes beyond the mere transmission of content and culture; it seeks to foster independence and autonomy, thereby aiming for the emancipation of the dependent child [Biesta, 2008].
In the post-war era, despite the sharp critique of critical theory towards institutional mechanisms of knowledge, a persistent interest in emancipation emerged among philosophers and educators in the latter half of the 20th century. Their practice sought to demystify the oppressive workings of power relations that shape the consciousness of modern individuals within social structures. One such philosopher was Michel Foucault, who boldly proclaimed that “power is everything” and “everything is knowledge” [Foucault, 1975]. Through his critical theory, Foucault dismantled the illusion of freedom, revealing that pleasure, behavior, and even habits are not freely experienced but are always mediated by power. He recognized that power and knowledge are intertwined, constituting a hybrid form that operates within society’s language and cultural practices. Foucault emphasized the presence of emancipatory possibilities within this ordered system, enabling resistance from within.
Building upon Foucault’s ideas, Deleuze and Guattari further explored the potential for self-criticism and emancipation. In their radical work Anti-Oedipus, they argued that society constructs its own delirium through the recording of the production process. This delirium, although not consciously intended, represents a true perception of an apparent objective movement, produced on the surface of recording. Their perspective highlights the critical force’s ability to dissolve itself in the production of crises, acknowledging that the subject of emancipation is simultaneously subjected to subjectification. Thus, within our daily production, we unwittingly contribute to the capitalist exchange, even if we may personally oppose it.
The preceding claims of this paper have exposed the unsettling reality that nothing can be fully trusted, and power, in its various manifestations, offers no true flexibility or freedom. This lack of emancipation permeates not only the realm of aesthetic experience but also the domain of education, leaving us longing for an alternative. It is within this context that the analysis of the social body through the lens of Freud and Foucault becomes crucial, as it uncovers a space where power’s grasp loosens: the deconstructed body.
Judith Butler, delving into the depths of the psyche, unravels the intricate relationship between the body and power. She reveals that beneath the layers of discourse lies something primordial—a psychic body that predates the mechanisms of power and its reproductive grid. This psychic body, characterized as the melancholic gendered body, escapes the clutches of power, rendering it free from the cycle of production and reproduction. In this state, amorphism takes precedence over the previously discussed forms of social activism. It is a state of being ‘bare,’ akin to Bergkamp’s concept of “bare life,” or a state that transcends clinical or human boundaries, as proposed by Lyotard. Within this realm of resistance, subjugation remains an ongoing process, for any mobilization against subjection ultimately becomes reliant on the very resources of subjection. Paradoxically, the attachment to harmful interpellations, driven by a necessary alienated narcissism, becomes the condition for the possibility of resigning these interpellations.
In essence, the resistant body, emerging from the depths of melancholia, challenges the notion of power’s all-encompassing grip. It unveils a space of potential subversion where the subject can assert agency beyond the confines of power’s influence. The melancholic gendered body disrupts established hierarchies and opens avenues for the exploration of alternative subjectivities. It embodies the indomitable spirit of resistance, reminding us that the struggle against subjection is never truly finished. By interrogating the melancholic gendered body, we aim to uncover new possibilities for challenging power’s dominion and envisioning a more liberating future.
In September 2022, e-flux published Anselm Francke’s poignant response to one of the central contemporary art events in Kassel, documenta: “We’re witnessing old structures not wanting to die.” This statement encapsulates the inherent resistance embedded within systems that perpetuate inequality and exclusion [Hindahl & Franke, 2022]. It is evident that the dialectic of reverting to orthodox or chauvinistic ideals holds no promise for renowned German curator and, above all, the theoretician of decolonialism. For those entrenched in the decolonial perspective, the Enlightenment, often hailed as a white and exclusive project, never truly concluded; rather, it morphed into different forms of colonization. By critiquing the first world for instigating the colonial system and exposing the enduring presence of the Master, as postcolonial theory has revealed, decolonial theory emerges as a beacon of hope, eagerly anticipating an emancipatory outcome.
To comprehend the unified struggle championed by theorists like Ferreira da Silva, an examination of the archaic category of “blackness” becomes imperative. In her analysis, da Silva posits that “blackness” lacks emancipatory power as it functions primarily as a signifier of violence [Da Silva, 2017]. In this context, the pursuit of emancipation, once embodied by those subjugated bodies, loses its significance within the framework of physical and mental enslavement imposed by white Europeans. Ferreira da Silva provocatively asserts that black individuals have been coerced into embracing an identity stripped of agency—one that mirrors a material devoid of power or value. Consequently, she concludes that the deconstruction of formerly enslaved territories and subjects must be accompanied by the recognition of true equality, wherein the traditional dichotomy of subject and subjugator dissolves.
In direct contrast to the narrow confines of modernism, which celebrated xenophobia and espoused a fervor for scientific progress, decolonial theory strives to dismantle the persistent myth of necessary racial segregation. Its ultimate objective is to affirm the axiom that race, much like nationality, is an artificial construct. As Achille Mbembe profoundly states, “In our world of hierarchical division, the idea of a common human condition is the object of many pious declarations. But it is far from being put into practice” [Mbembe, 2017]. Emancipation, therefore, arises with the eradication of the universal determinism imposed by the name “Black,” which confines black bodies to the realm of mere fossils, denying their inherent potential to act and shape the world.
Within the realm of decolonial struggles, a profound reimagining of societal structures emerges—one that transcends the limitations of racial categorization and seeks to establish a shared human condition. It is a call for liberation from the shackles of oppressive systems, as well as an invitation to embrace the complexity of individual identities and dismantle the hierarchies that perpetuate inequality.
Throughout this exploration, we have delved into the complexities surrounding the concept of emancipation from various perspectives. From the ideals of the Enlightenment to avant-garde movements, from the realms of education and knowledge to the realm of the body, and from decolonial struggles to the dismantling of oppressive systems, our journey has shed light on the multifaceted nature of the pursuit for liberation.
We have witnessed how the Enlightenment project initially celebrated reason as the ultimate form of knowledge, offering a pathway to autonomy. However, the expansion of reason in the modern era has led to fragmented beliefs and a loss of a unified morality. While aesthetic experiences and educational endeavors have been regarded as potential avenues for emancipation, their limitations have become apparent. The power structures embedded within society permeate every aspect of our lives, constraining our freedom and agency.
Yet, amidst the seemingly insurmountable challenges, glimmers of hope emerge. Judith Butler’s exploration of the deconstruction of the body reveals the potential for resistance beyond the grip of power. The concept of the melancholic gendered body presents a space where amorphism and the shedding of oppressive constructs become possible. It is a reminder that subjugation is never final, and the conditions for emancipation lie within our ability to resign harmful interpellations. In our examination of decolonial theory, we have confronted the enduring legacies of colonialism and the persistent inequalities that haunt our world. By deconstructing the categories of difference, such as “blackness,” theorists like Denise Ferreira da Silva have unveiled the violent signification that limits the emancipatory power of marginalized communities.
In conclusion, the analysis conducted in this article has illuminated the enduring influence of “modern” thought, which has not waned but instead fostered a dynamic battleground where diverse philosophic projects of emancipation converge, challenging one another without the prospect of final reconciliation. However, amidst this ongoing struggle, a glimmer of hope emerges—the unwavering belief in alternative ways of living. Quoting Chantalle Mouffe: “Certainly, the modernist idea has to be abandoned, but that does not mean that any form of critique has become impossible” [Mouffe, 2008].
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