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fractured legitimations Arrow vol 5 no 3 contents
About borderlands volume 5 number 3, 2006


Fractured Legitimations

Jane Mummery
University of Ballarat



Modern worldviews must accept the conditions of post-metaphysical thought tothe extent that they recognize that they are competing with other interpretations of the world within the same universe of validity claims. This reflective knowledge concerning the competition between equally warring "gods and demons" creates an awareness of their fallibility and shatters the naiveté of dogmatic modes of belief founded on absolute truth claims (Habermas, 2001: 94).

1. There is nothing controversial now in saying that legitimation is a problem. Indeed if, as Richard Rorty suggests, we are moving towards a post-philosophical or post-metaphysical culture in which we can no longer find any "ahistorical, transcultural matrix" for our thinking (Rorty, 2006: 46), then the procedures of truth-finding and legitimation, when applied particularly to cultural matters, will become ever more contested. After all, if we are no longer able to find and fix cultural or social truths via reference to tradition (whether religious or cultural) or to such ahistorical notions as Nature or Reason, then what are we to do? Are we to give up on the possibilities and procedures of truth-finding and legitimation in this domain, and retreat into some version of scepticism? Should we restrict what we mean by truth-finding and legitimation and accept the relativist's adages that 'Different cultures do legitimation differently' and that 'Never the twain shall meet' and that that is perfectly fine? Or can we follow the lead set in the work of such thinkers as Jürgen Habermas, John Rawls, and even Richard Rorty, to name only a few of the proponents of this sort of view, and argue that a claim, or anything else, should only be understood as having been legitimated when it has been the subject of an unforced consensus? Habermas, for instance, exemplifies this view when he writes that as we can "no longer appeal to the authority of unquestioned traditions", and if "we do not want to settle questions concerning the normative regulation of our everyday coexistence by open or covert force", then we can only turn to the possibility of a "rationally motivated agreement" (Habermas, 2001: 151).

2. This turn, however, is not necessarily a solution to the problem of legitimation in a post-metaphysical culture, as these thinkers have for the most part also recognised. For a start the questions of what precisely is meant by a "rationally motivated agreement", to use Habermas' phrasing, and whether such a thing is in fact possible outside of ideal conditions, need careful consideration. Further, does such a drive for consensus in fact damage the possibility for a diverse society and healthy polity, as Chantal Mouffe suggests (Mouffe, 1993)? And what would such a model of legitimation through consensus mean for the possibility of revolt? That is, would it mean that a violation of what was agreed to would necessarily be always unjustifiable? Finally, what if a consensus is not and cannot be reached?

3. Such issues, then, are what link together the diverse collection of papers that comprise this final issue of Borderlands for 2006. While the articles in the issue consider a wide range of topics - social activism and the anti-dam movement in India; the non-performativity of institutional speech acts relating to anti-racism in universities in the United Kingdom; and the Australian Prime Minister John Howard's discursive representations of the death of Pope John Paul II, to name a few - they are all concerned, in various ways, to interrogate the problematic procedures and performances of legitimation.

4. To start with, James C. Ross, in his paper "The Promise of Promise: A Respite from Contingency", considers the role of promise in the political logic of modernity. Using the immigration debates of America in the 1920s as his exemplar, Ross suggests that promise works to consolidate and legitimate a national self by "channelling, encoding and disciplining desire in political life" (Ross, 2006). Ross, however, argues that this is an "endless promise", a "fantasy object", and that therefore "[t]he promise of the national self is an unfinished project: a fantasy construed out of absent presence, the originary lack out of which the endless promise keeps promising" (Ross, 2006).

5. Sara Ahmed also considers the problematic performance of legitimation through her exploration of institutional speech acts. Specifically, she argues in her paper "The Non-Performativity of Anti-Racism" that "speech acts that declare organisations", such as universities, to be "diverse and ... committed to racial equality" are actually non-performative. That is, "they do not bring about the effects that they name" (Ahmed, 2006). Ahmed then goes on to conclude that despite this apparent failure of expected performativity, these speech acts can still - and in fact do - do things. Whilst they may not be able to actually effect or legitimate what an institution says about itself - she suggests that they only "create fantasy images of the organisations they apparently represent" - they still do important work in "exposing [the] gaps between words and deeds" (Ahmed, 2006).

6. In his turn, Nirmal Trivedi is concerned with the problems faced by social activists when they aim to use the law to speak about and defend "subjects abandoned by the law" (Trivedi, 2006). Using the anti-dam movement in India and the building of the Sardar Sarovar (the largest dam of the Narmada Valley Development Project) as his case study, Trivedi argues that the relationships between such subjects - here the Project-Affected Peoples - and social activists and sovereign power need to be re-imagined. More specifically he suggests that the reliance by social activists on the category and discourse of human right to life is problematic insofar as it is just this right that sovereign power can abandon. As Trivedi quotes from Agamben, "The originary relation of law to life is not application but Abandonment" (Agamben, 1998: 29). However, rather than arguing that it is this conception of the relation that needs to be abandoned, Trivedi suggests that it could rather be productively re-imagined. As he posits in his concluding remarks,

While [Agamben's state of exception] is the space in which the law applies in no longer applying and where crimes that are only imaginable can be fully realized, I believe that we can also imagine it as a space of pure possibility. (Trivedi, 2006).

In other words, Trivedi suggests that it is this very "absence of law" that represents an "opportunity to insert a new form of life" (Trivedi, 2006).

7. Jeremy Fernando turns our attention to the issue of how conceptions of national identity may be legitimised through such a medium as film. Specifically, he argues that the focus and practice of the Singaporean film industry is in many ways - both infra-structurally and content-wise - "symptomatic of the manner in which the [Singaporean] nation defines itself" (Fernando, 2006). Further, he suggests here that these filmic practices - given that they are typically driven by the need to establish and represent national identity, to "search for the spectre that will never show itself" - provide the necessary auto-immune response and support required by the state (Fernando, 2006).

8. Also concerned with issues of representation, Holly Randell-Moon's paper interrogates the "discursive framing of religion" - and more specifically that of the recent death of Pope John Paul II - by the Australian Prime Minister John Howard. Here she argues that Howard's eulogising of the Pope as a "liberationist who led the struggle for freedom against de-individualising regimes" effectively enabled Howard to represent the Pope's struggle and religious agenda as support for his government's "cultural and political policy priorities", despite the Pope's expressed opposition to these priorities (Randell-Moon, 2006). As such Randell-Moon demonstrates how Howard transforms the "specificity of the Pope's Catholicism" into much more general "politicised discourses of 'freedom' and 'individualism'", a task she performs through the development and deployment of a new term "Howardage" (Randell-Moon, 2006).

9. Next Deborah Pike leads us into a meditation on Sharon's Wall in Israel and Palestine. Here, in her paper "Sharon's Wall and the Dialectics of Inside/Outside", Pike examines "the spatial and ontological implications" of this border space, its "architectural phenomenology" (Pike, 2006). Inspired by Gaston Bachelard's ideas regarding what he calls 'geometrism' and 'imaginal space', Pike argues that perhaps this latter may offer a productive "different logic" and "more creative conception of space" that may enable us to re-imagine our locatedness within space (Pike, 2006). After all, as Bachelard writes, "Imaginal space is ... not simply a container for our actions and our lives but created by and constitutive of them" (Bachelard, 1964: xii).

10. We now turn from these papers to a report by Kay Schaffer on "Memory, Narrative and Forgiveness: Reflecting on Ten Years of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission", an international conference held at the University of Cape Town, 23-27 November 2006. Being part of what she describes as a "tense, productive, eventful five days", Schaffer was impelled to try and account for and take account of both the "emotional, political, practical, and theoretical challenges" presented by the conference, and the various "cross currents, convergences, and conflicts that assailed participants" (Schaffer, 2006), aims which resulted in this report. Given that Truth Commissions - " established to officially investigate and provide an accurate record of the broader pattern of abuses committed during repression and civil war" (Reddy, 2004) - have come to play an important role in the quest for justice [1], the report of this conference makes challenging and compelling reading, asking all of us to reflect on how such institutions may carry out their sometimes conflicting directives.

11. Finally, I would like to take the opportunity to make a few remarks on behalf of the editorial team for Borderlands. First I would like to thank everyone who has helped make each of our issues for 2006 possible, specifically all our authors and referees and reviewers. I would also like to thank Bruce Buchan, Catriona Elder, and Lorenzo Veracini for all their efforts over the year, and of course Anthony Burke for his work in publishing each issue. I would also like to extend a welcome to Vijay Devadas who has recently joined our editorial team. To conclude, we hope you enjoy the issue, and that it challenges you to think a little further, argue back. See you all in 2007.


Jane Mummery is a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Ballarat. She is the author of The Post to Come: An Outline of Post-Metaphysical Ethics (2005), and her current research turns around the ethico-political possibilities and implications of contemporary European philosophy. She has work forthcoming in Philosophy Today and Symposium.


[1] Since the establishment of Uganda's Commission of Inquiry into the Disappearances of People in Uganda in 1986, there have been more than thirty truth commissions established worldwide, including in Argentina, Chile, Timor-Leste, El Salvador, Guatemala, and more importantly South Africa. For information on truth commisions, see Paavani Reddy's article ' Truth and Reconciliation Commissions: Instruments for Ending Impunity and Building Lasting Peace' (2004); and the Truth Commissions Digital Collection held at the United States Institute of Peace.


Agamben, G. 1998, Homer Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. D. Heller-Roazen. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Ahmed, S. 2006, 'The Non-Performativity of Anti-Racism', borderlands e-journal , vol. 5, no.3.

Bachelard, G. 1964, The Poetics of Space, trans. M. Jolas. New York: Orion Press.

Fernando, J. 2006, 'The Spectre of the National that Haunts Singapore (Cinema) or You Can Only See Ghosts if You are Blind', borderlands e-journal , vol. 5, no.3.

Habermas, J. 2001, Justification and Application: Remarks on Discourse Ethics. Cambridge MA & London: MIT Press.

Mouffe, C. 1993, The Return of the Political. London & New York: Verso.

Pike, D. 2006, 'Sharon's Wall and the Dialectics of Inside/Outside', borderlands e-journal , vol. 5, no.3.

Randell-Moon, H. 2006, 'Creating Pope John Paul IX.XI: Religion, the "War on Terror" and the Politics of Discourses of Howardage', borderlands e-journal , vol. 5, no.3.

Reddy, P. 2004, 'Truth and Reconciliation Commissions: Instruments for Ending Impunity and Building Lasting Peace', UN Chronicle Online Edition , issue 4,

Rorty, R. 2006, Take Care of Freedom and Truth Will Take Care of Itself: Interviews with Richard Rorty. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Ross, J. C. 2006, 'The Promise of Promise: A Respite from Contingency', borderlands e-journal , vol. 5, no.3.

Schaffer, K. 2006, 'Conference Report: Memory, Narrative and Forgiveness: Reflecting on Ten Years of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, University of Cape Town, 23-27 November 2006', borderlands e-journal , vol. 5, no.3.

Trivedi, N. 2006, 'Biopolitical Convergences: Narmada Bachao Andolan and Homo Sacer', borderlands e-journal , vol. 5, no.3.

Truth Commissions Digital Collection, United States Institute of Peace, Accessed 30 January 2007 at

© borderlands ejournal 2005



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