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In Western Europe, especially in France, after 1968 continental philosophy took a postmodern turn: a loss of faith not only in grand narratives, but also in a coherent subject, in stable meaning, and in absolute truth. Meaning—Jacques Derrida taught—flickers, subverts itself, is ever in flux. His philosophy of deconstruction represented, he wrote, “the least necessary condition for identifying and combatting the totalitarian risk.”
Postmodernism, conceived in large part by the Left as a safeguard for pluralism and an antidote to totalizing ideologies, has today, half a century later, became a weapon of an encroaching neo-totalitarianism of the Right. As Peter Pomerantsev wrote of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, in this new world “nothing is true and everything is possible.” In the aftermath of the Prague Spring, the very same tradition of continental philosophy developed differently in East and Central Europe. This difference was very much bound up with a confrontation with the totalitarian legacy: the imperative was to reject grand narratives claiming to possess absolute truth, while not rejecting the existence of truth as such.
Marci Shore is associate professor of history at Yale University and Visiting Fellow at the IWM. She is the author of Caviar and Ashes: A Warsaw Generation’s Life and Death in Marxism, 1918-1968, The Taste of Ashes: The Afterlife of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe, and, most recently, The Ukrainian Night: An Intimate History of Revolution. Presently she is at work on a longer book project titled “Phenomenological Encounters: Scenes from Central Europe.”