The theory of communicative action and the aesthetic moment: Habermas and the (neo)Nietzschean challenge

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Virginia Tech

This thesis seeks to explore the viability and limitations for democratic politics found at the intersecting philosophical orientations of Jurgen Habermas's theory of communicative action and (neo)Nietzschean conceptions of an aesthetic, affective ethos of self-formation. Despite his recognition of the pathological hubris of modern, instrumental forms of rationality, Habermas argues that a careful consideration of rationality's full breadth suggests the social potential to reach understandings about our moral-practical problems and our aesthetic-expressive disagreements that could serve as the foundation for a democratically negotiated politics of action. Habermas takes exception to those thinkers .. such as Nietzsche and his heirs - who have abandoned rationality in favor of a disruptive aestheticism that remains bound to a subject .. centered philosophy of consciousness and that lacks the self-critical mechanisms characteristic of rationality's intersubjective potential. The totalizing tendencies of a subject-centered perspective leaves such a thought vulnerable to the mystifying appeals of a demagogic politics, to the pull of commodification, and to the dangers of an unchecked moral relativism.

The negotiation of action through consensus that underwrites Habermas's project, however, tends to obscure our right to be different and underthematizes the difficulty that certain voices have in getting to the negotiating table in the first place. By challenging the model of learning that informs Habermas's "ideal speech situation" with variants of Nietzsche's notion of "mnemothechnics," I suggest that resistances to the colonizing advances of instrumental rationality cannot ignore the resources offered by Nietzschean/Foucauldian suggestions about the extra-discursive, affective possibilities for self-formation. William Connolly's vision of an "agonopluralism" suggests that these resources might be deployed within a democratic politics that shares Habermas's concern with an intersubjective system of checks and balances.

Nietzsche, Habermas, Foucault, democracy, aesthetic