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Enlightenment and post-enlightenment subjectivity
Nick Haeffner
London Metropolitan University

One of the easiest (and most satisfying) critical pastimes is to treat ideas of the past as naïve in comparison to our own, naturally privileged, intellectual orientation. Yet to what extent has the 'post-modern turn' really enacted the form of meta-critique which it brandishes as evidence of its cutting edge relevance? More disturbingly for progressive middle class intellectuals, who pride themselves on their ultra-modern, de-mystified, secular values, how far have these notions come from those of their Christian forebears? And to what extent have teachers attempted to inculcate a form of subjectivity (self-reflective, free thinking, hard working, time efficient, analytical, widely read and socially critical) in their students which is justified as a progressive, modern sense of self yet which is also recognisable as a late eighteenth century German protestant ideal?

This paper seeks to reposition the terms of the debate on Enlightenment versus post-Enlightenment subjectivity, which, as presently constituted in cultural theory, falls victim to what might be called the 'anachronistic fallacy'. The anachronistic fallacy consists in a belief that only contemporary (post 1960s) theory can answer (or pose) the vital questions of subjectivity satisfactorily and that it alone can offer a thoroughgoing critique of previous attempts to address these issues. In this view, theory before the 1960s is anachronistic, notable chiefly for the bits of it which have helped to construct the current paradigm. Cultural studies in the wake of poststructuralism constructs a self-interested and naïve Enlightenment which it posits as having been unmasked by an increasingly less mystified theory whose stages of development are marked under the advent of Marxism, Freudianism, and ultimately, poststructuralism. [Read more]