Blog post

The Universalism of Difference

Giacomo Marramao 4 December 2012

The last chapter of my book (The Passage West: Philosophy After the Age of the Nation State) is titled (in homage to George Steiner) “After Babel.” In introducing my argument—which resumes and develops my philosophical analysis of the phenomenon of globalization—take the film Babel, by the Mexican director Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu, as a starting point for a radical rethinking of our present. The film depicts the globalized world as a complex space, at once interdependent and differentiated in character, constituted like a mosaic, composed of a multiplicity of "asynchronic" ways and forms of life that are brought together by the manifold flux of events that traverse them.

This cinematographic depiction perfectly captures the disconcerting bi-logic of globalization, the logic through which the mix of the global market and of digital technologies operating in "real time" generates an increasing diaspora of identities. The Babel of our contemporary world thereby reveals itself as a kind of planetary extension of the world of Kakania described by Robert Musil—a cacophonous compendium of proliferating and mutually untranslatable languages. In order to conceptualize, and produce a suitably fluid and dynamic account, of this new "world picture," we must not only dissolve the spurious dilemma between universalism and relativism, but move beyond the current impasse encouraged by a normative political philosophy which tends to reify "cultural identities" and "struggles for recognition" by treating these as givens rather than as problems.

The philosophical approach pursued in my book attempts to liberate the concept of “the universal,” despite the etymology of the word, from the logic of the reductio ad Unum, and apply it instead to the realm of multiplicity and difference. Developing a double phenomenology of the increasingly homogenizing phenomenon of the market on the one hand and of the internally conflicted pandemic of identitarian and communitarian approaches on the other, The Passage West indicates a variety of universalizing tendencies whose potential for conflict (and for the creation of new forms of common life) can only fully be evaluated in the context of a new theory and practice of translation.

The proposal for a universalism of difference is predicated on the failure of the two principal models of "democratic" inclusion that have previously been attempted in the West: the republican or assimilationist model (the “République model”) that is founded upon what could be called a universalism of indifference, and the "strong" multiculturalism model (the so-called “Londonistan model”) that derives from a mosaic of differences that also provides fertile ground for the growth of fundamentalism.

But to advance beyond the antagonistic complicity generated by this dilemma calls for a re-enchantment of the Political: the only way in which we may be able to read the prognostic signs of our present.