Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The dialectic of postmodernism, neoconservatism and fundamentalism

The following text is part of broader project I am working on, having to do with the postmodern necessity to redefine our notion of freedom. The aim is to get away from the autonomy of the modern subject and move towards a third position between autonomy and heteronomy, where subject and other are engaged in a mutually enforcing reciprocity. The critical importance of such a third position can be glanced from a chiasma which according to me summarizes the current state of critical theory: autonomy without respect for the other degenerates into totalitarian egocentrism, but respect for the other without a measure of autonomy degenerates into dogmatic heteronomy where the other is deified as “The Other” (which happens, for example, in Levinasian ethics).

The dialectic of our time: Postmodernism, neconservatism and fundamentalism
The principle of autonomy underlies the progressive project of Enlightenment and modernity as a critical-emancipatory movement. The autonomous subject is only bound to rules and laws which it self-imposes voluntarily. Thus it has the power, the right and even the duty to critically judge and decide the validity of all external authority. In socio-political terms this means democracy, such that each individual participates in the constitution of the laws of the collective, which is in that sense self-legislative. Despite or perhaps rather because of this progressiveness, modernity has been and still is under attack – an attack aimed at the principle of autonomy itself. This threat manifested itself in three forms, which remarkably enough have all been active since the 1960’s. The attacks range from merely theoretical to political and even military. They are (1) postmodernism, (2) islamic fundamentalism and (3) neoconservatism.

In the following I want to show how the necessity of finding a third between autonomy and heteronomy follows from the dialectical interrelation of these three positions. As attacks on the modern ideal of autonomy, these positions obviously have a lot in common, but at the same time the vehemence of their critique of modernity is paralleled only by their rejection of each other. What this shows, according to me, is that the critique of modern autonomy exhibits a paradoxical dialectic, since critique always presupposes a measure of autonomy ('thinking for yourself), so that any critique of autonomy must somehow bite its own tail. This dialectic inherent in the critical destruction of modern autonomy is exhibited by the paradoxical relations between postmodernism, neoconservatism and fundamentalism. I take these three positions to be the main intellectual stances of this moment, the three forms – one could say – of the spirit of our times. It is from the dynamic of their interrelation that the next development of that spirit must follow, to put it in somewhat Hegelian terms. What I mean is that the future of critical theory depends on the outcome of the debate or struggle between these three positions. In the following I want to set out the coordinates of that debate. In a future post I will deal more extensively with the way this debate can be resolved and how this relates to the necessity of finding a third between autonomy and heteronomy.

The postmodern critique of the autonomous subject
Firstly, there is the theoretical threat posed by postmodern philosophy, attacking modernity’s subject-centrism. This attack takes on two (closely interrelated) forms: ethical and (post-)structuralist. The ethical reproach says that the autonomous subject cannot do justice to the other, since the subject only recognizes values which it itself has instituted (which is, of course, what self-legisaltion means). Hence the intrinsic worth of the other an sich is necessarily lost on the subject. Versions of this ethical critique of modernity can be found in Levinas, Adorno, Lyotard, Bauman and others. The (post-)structuralist critique is aimed at the subject’s alleged independence from the other, which is exposed as false, an illusion concealing a structural heteronomy, a decenteredness of the subject with respect to the irrecupareble otherness inherent in language, the unconscious, social power structures etc. Such (post-)structuralist deconstructions of the subject can be found in thinkers like Althusser, Lacan, Foucault, Derrida and Deleuze. In tandem, the ethical and decentering motives in postmodern thought reveal the irrational and totalitarian tendencies of modernity, which undermine its alleged progressiveness. The modern delusion of autonomy masks and legitimizes the dominance of the (mostly western and masculine) ego over the other (read: nature, women, Jews, blacks, gay, etc.). The other is thereby reduced to a mere non-ego, the negative counterpart of the subject.

Deconstruction and the dialectic
Since my aim is to rehabilitate dialectics as a privileged tool for critical thought, I will elaborate somewhat on the ambiguous role played by dialectics in postmodern theory. In its Hegelian guise, the dialectic is of course the bête noir of postmodern theorists, who see the Hegelian system as the paragon of the subject’s injustice to the other. For Hegel, the other is merely the non-self, the externalized alienation of the self, to be returned to the self through an assimilating synthesis (negation of the negation). Thus Hegel: “for freedom means that the other thing with which you deal is a second self... For freedom it is necessary that we should feel no presence of something else which is not ourselves.” (1975: 39) The post-structuralist move, however, consists in the realization that this apparently dialectical reduction of the other to the self is actually at odds with the basic principle of dialectics itself, namely, the constitutive importance of negativity for identity (ie. something is what it is by differing from what it is not – as Spinoza put it: Every determination is a negation). Because of this principle, the identity of the self requires difference from an other. To reduce the other to the self, as Hegel does, is to leave the self without a contrasting difference and hence without identity. In other words, from a dialectical point of view, the Hegelian negation of the other by the self is really a kind of suicide. In a sense, then, post-structuralism – and Derrida's deconstruction in particular – merely points out this inner paradox of Hegelian dialectis. As one recent commentator put it: “Derrida only assists the suicide of the Hegelian system.” (Baugh 2003: 120) The post-structuralist conclusion is that the identity of the self is essentially dependent on an other who is irreducible to the self. The self is decentered: it has its essential center outside itself, in its relation to an irreducible other. This decenterment constitutes a heteronomy in the identity of the self. In that sense, post-structuralism can be seen as an internal critique of the Hegelian dialectic, a hyper-dialectic, a “Hegelianism without reserve” (Derrida 2002), that is, a dialectic without the imprisonment of otherness within the bounds of identity. Deconstruction can thus been seen as a dialectic run amok, in which the constitutive relation to otherness can no longer be recuperated in synthetic identity but keeps on proliferating in an endless play of differences that subvert established identities. In that sense Derrida situates his thought in “the morning after Hegelianism” (Derrida 1981: 107-8).

Islamic fundamentalism
Secondly, there is the not so theoretical but rather practical threat posed by anti-modern Islamic fundamentalism, which in the name of the heteronomous submission to Allah rejects democracy and autonomy as western illusions. Perversely paraphrasing Marx one could say that Islamic fundamentalism complements the merely theoretical weapon of the postmodern critique with a critique of weapons, ie terror against modernity, aiming at the violent establishment of religious heteronomy, constitutionally embodied in Sharia. Although the threat of Islamic fundamentalism seems to have lost much of its punch due to the democratic movement of the recent Arab Awakening (which goes to show that Islam is not in and of itself anti-democratic), there are still many fundamentalist factions active in Islamist circles, with extremist attacks still taking place in Afghanistan, Nigeria, Pakistan, Indonesia and other muslim countries. After 9/11 and the subsequent security crackdown, Islamist violence has now more or less ceased in Western countries. Yet, the threat is still real. Much probably depends on how the recent democratization movement in the Middle East will work out. As nearly happened in Algeria in the 1990s, it could very well be that elections will bring fundamentalist parties to state power (a very real possibility with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt), especially if pro-western parties fail to bring stability and prosperity. In the West, the worsening economic crisis could intensify scapegoat mechanisms, leading to increasing islamophopia, exploited by right-wing politicians with populist agenda’s. Their rhetoric of a “Clash of Civilizations” (Samuel Huntington) could easily turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy, resulting in increased violence between the modern West and Islamic factions.

The neoconservative critique of postmodern theory
One way to understand the third threat to modernity’s principle of autonomy is from the dialectic between the first two, postmodernism and Islamic fundamentalism, which may seem to necessitate a certain conservatism with respect to Western modernity ityself. For the fact is that the theoretical, postmodern attack on modernity is seriously weakened or undermined by the practical, Islamic-fundamentalist attack. With critics such as Habermas one may take postmodernism to task for doing away with the autonomy of the subject, for thereby postmodernism has seemingly done away with the possibility of critical emancipation as such, undermining itself as a critical theory. In Habermasian terms, postmodernism’s rejection of autonomy amounts to a performative self-contradiction, since as a critical theory (critical of modernity) postmodernism still presupposes a measure of autonomy, an ability for independent thought and (self-)critique. By rejecting the autonomy of the subject, postmodern philosophy delivers us again to the violence of heteronomy from which the Enlightenment tried to save us. Ethics asunconditional responsibility for the Other” (Levinas) seems noble, but what if the other has evil intentions and may be in possession of WOMD? What if the Levinasian “Face of the Other” is hidden by a balaclava? Wouldn’t it be wise then to retain some form of autonomy, some critical distance to and independence from the other? It probably goes too far to say that postmodern philosophy paved the way for Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism. Still it is a fact that, because of its rejection of modern autonomy, postmodernism is ill equiped to fight fundamentalism. Thus it may appear that for the critical-emancipatory potential of modernity to be saved, modernity must be protected against its postmodern critics, those who weaken it from within. For neoconservatives, Islamic fundamentalism is the perfect stick with which to beat postmodernism: in order to protect the West against fundamentalism, postmodernism must be silenced. Neoconservatism stresses that the progressiveness of modernity can only be pulled from the swamp of multicultural relativism by means of a dogmatic assertion of modernity’s superiority over other cultures, notably the Islamic ones (and the neocon politics of Bush c.s. towards the Arab world should be understood in light of this western self-assertion). The critical attitude of the Enlightenment can only be saved by immunizing it to all criticism, or so the neoconservatives claim. Thus they profile themselves as the real progressives, the heirs of the Enlightenment: a conservatism of modernity as the best guarantee for its critical-emancipatory potential.

The neoconservative plea for Bildung
The flipside of this immunization of the core of modernity is the neoconservative rehabilitation of authority and traditional values. The Judeo-Christian emphasis on individual responsibility must – according to neoconservative intellectuals like Leo Strauss, Eric Voegelin, Allan Bloom, Roger Scruton and Theodor Dalrymple – be rehabilitated as the traditional basis of the Enlightenment and the modern principle of autonomy. According to neoconservatism, modernity must itself become conservative (must conserve its traditional core) in order to resist Islamic fundamentalism. In this way neoconservatism differs from the original conservatism of the 18th and 19th centuries. This original conservatism, developed by intellectuals like Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre, was a reaction to the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. It argued that the modern advocacy of individual freedom would result in the anarchic dissolution of society. In contrast, neoconservatism accepts the progressiveness of the Enlightenment and modernity, arguing instead that to save that progressiveness from the fundamentalist threat we must conserve its traditional foundation. Thus neoconservatism can be described as a dialectical synthesis of Enlightenment and conservatism.

Neoconservative thinkers point out that if individual freedom is taken as absolute, without external constraints, it degenerates into arbitrary individualism, where the individual is left to the immediacy of his primitive urges (which is – from a Kantian viewpoint – heteronomy instead of autonomy). According to neoconservatism, the advocacy of this arbitrary individualism (“anything goes”, “it is forbidden to forbid”) is the mistake of the liberal left and its permissive society that developed in the West since the 1960’s. To turn individual freedom into true autonomy, where the individual is able to control his immediate urges through self-imposed laws, those laws must be instilled in the individual through upbringing and education. It is dangerously naïve to think that such ethical laws are inborn, part of the natural endowment of humans, such that the moral character of man comes to flourish only in a state of nature, uncorrupted by culture: this is the myth of the ‘noble savage’ – often ascribed to Rousseau and essential to the hippie counter-culture that inaugurated the permissive society. In contrast, neoconservatism argues that immersion in a pre-given culture is necessary for the development of autonomous selves. Autonomy requires what the Germans call Bildung: the formation of the self through absorption of the cultural classics. Hence the neoconservative emphasis on the authority of traditional values.

The paradox of neoconservatism
As we have seen, neoconservatism rejects the postmodern critique of modernity in order to save the modern critical attitude from fundamentalism. Thus to save that critical attitude, neoconservatism wants to limit its range by a degree of dogmatism (the subjection to tradition) – an obvious paradox, which is mirrored by the oxymoronic character of the label “neoconservatism”. The focus on newness and progress implied in the prefix “neo-” doesn’t sit well with the conservatism. Neoconservatives have described themselves as the real revolutionaries of our time (as opposed to the revolutionaries of the left), but their revolution is retrograde, a step forward by taking two steps back. Earlier I described neoconservatism as the synthesis of Enlightenment and conservatism. But exactly how the contradiction between these two can be overcome remains unclear. It may indeed be the case that individual freedom is transformed from arbitrary willfulness to self-legislation through the internalization of traditional, culturally transmitted values. But does this culturally mediated self-legislation constitute a true autonomy? Or is it rather a heteronomy in disguise, a slavish subjection to traditional culture? Doesn’t autonomy also require an ability to criticize the tradition and culture in which one stands? This critical distance to the past was part and parcel of the Enlightenment, as it asserted itself against the powers of religion and feudalism. Yet in neoconservatism this critical distance to tradition seems lost. Autonomous self-legislation may require internalization of pre-given values, but how do we prevent this internalization from resulting in complete heteronomy? How do we reach a third, a balance between autonomy and heteronomy? This problem is more or less overlooked by neoconservative thinkers. They are insufficiently aware of the paradox involved in basing autonomy on heteronomy.

Postmodern theory as the self-critique of modernity
The position of neonconservatism is all the more paradoxical in light of the fact that the postmodern critique – which neconservatism wishes to veto in order to save modernity – actually arose from the self-critical turn of modernity as such. That is to say, postmodernism is the self-critique of the autonomous subject. The neoconservative rejection of postmodernism is therefore a rejection of the very same critical attitude which neoconservatism wishes to save. To see how postmodern theory arose from the self-critical turn of modern thought, we have to take a closer look at Kant and his impact on philosophy.

Kant’s (self-)critique of pure reason can rightfully be seen as both the high point of modern thought and the beginning of postmodern theory. Kant’s central question how is pure reason possible? is precisely the question of the possibility of autonomy, ie of the ability for self-legislation (free from external input and in that sense “pure”) in the areas of knowledge, ethics and beauty. According to Kant, “Our age is the age of criticism, to which everything must submit.” (KdrV, AXI, Anm.) As Kant realized, however, this requirement – in its universality – turns back on itself: the legitimacy of the tribunal of pure reason itself must first be determined before the other defendants (religious and worldly authorities) can receive a fair trial. The self-critique of pure reason must therefore precede the criticism of others. It is this self-reflexivity inherent in the modern critical attitude which ultimately resulted in the postmodern critique of the subject. As Frederick Beiser notes: “Paradoxically, the crisis of the Enlightenment arose from within, and indeed from its most cherished principle. The problem is that this principle is self-reflexive. If reason must subject all beliefs to criticism, it must also subject its own tribunal to criticism. To exempt its tribunal from scrutiny would be nothing less than ‘dogmatism’, accepting beliefs on authority, which is the very opposite of reason. The criticism of reason therefore inevitably became the meta-criticism of reason.” (Beiser 2005, p.23)

Following Kant, subsequent philosophers searched for the foundations of human autonomy, thereby discovering its weaknesses, the places where the subject is dependent on something other than itself. From Kant onwards, there runs a continuous line, mediated notably by Hegel and Schopenhauer, to the “Masters of Suspicion(Marx, Nietzsche, Freud) and from there to the (post-)structuralist critique of the subject (Althusser, Foucault, Lacan, Derrida, Deleuze). As we have seen in a previous section, this self-critique of modern thought crucially involved the internal critique of Hegelian dialectics, resulting in deconstruction as a “Hegelianism without reserve” (Derrida).

The shared dialectic of Islamic fundamentalism and modernity
But what, then, about Islamic fundamentalism? Doesn’t it show the weakness of postmodern theory, as neoconservatives say? Doesn’t the threat of Islamism force us to rehabilitate a form of autonomy as a bulwark against fundamentalism? And doesn’t this mean the bankruptcy of postmodern theory after all? Well, yes and no. In one way, Islamic fundamentalism does indeed put postmodern theory in a difficult spot, since it underscores the critical importance of a measure of autonomy. In another way, however, Islamic fundamentalism also confirms the postmodern critique of the autonomous subject as a dangerous, totalitarian illusion. For the crucial point to be appreciated is that Islamic fundamentalism is not so alien to western modernity as the rhetoric of a “Clash of Civilizations” wants us to believe. As I will argue in the following paragraphs, both exemplify a dialectic of self-determination through negation of the other.

On the one hand, Islamic fundamentalism is obviously opposed to the modern West in that it rejects individual autonomy and democracy in the name of Islam. This rejection is constitutive of Islamic fundamentalism insofar as the fundamentalist must negate or exclude modernity in order to assert himself as a true muslim. Religious heteronomy requires the active and sometimes violent negation of autonomy. The suicide bombing, in which not only western (or westernized) individuals are killed but also the bomber himself, constitutes the ultimate proof of the fundamentalist’s utter disregard for individual autonomy and hence his total commitment to Islam. This social function of terror against others as a means of self-affirmation has been noted before, especially with regard to Islamic fundamentalism. As Benjamin Barber remarks about the latter in his book Jihad vs. McWorld: Self-determination has at times amounted to little more than other-extermination.” (1995: 11) But what is seldom noted – also not by Barber – is that fundamentalism is in that respect not alien to modernity at all. Rather, Islamic-fundamentalist terrorism repeats the basic pattern of modern autonomy, namely, the dialectic of self-determination through negation of the other. As remarked above, this dialectic received its paradigm expression in the Hegelian system, where the other is reduced to the negative counterpart of the subject, its alien externalization, to be reintegrated by means of a synthesizing negation of the negation. Thus Barber's criticism of Islamic fundamentalism mirrors the postmodern critique of the Hegelian dialectic and the broader logic of modern autonomy which that dialectic exemplifies.

Modernity’s terror against otherness
In its negative relation to otherness, then, Islamic fundamentalism is not foreign to the West. Islamist terrorism merely makes explicit what usually remains hidden, the dark side of modern autonomy, its dialectic of self-determination through negation of otherness. Terrorism is the bare form of modernity’s inherent ‘terror against otherness’– which is not merely a dramatizing metaphor, but something concretely felt in modernity’s material practices of exclusion, domination, extermination and exploitation. When confronted by Islamist terrorism, then, we should never forget that terrorism is essentially a western invention. To be precise, terrorism is an invention of the French Revolution (in which, of course, modern democracy and autonomy were taught for the first time as universal human ideals) when it degenerated into the Jacobin Reign of Terror, which – to protect the Revolution against “counterrevolutionary forces” – killed 40,000 people in the name of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.

The fact that revolutionary terrorism is linked to the modern ideal of autonomy was already noted by Hegel in his analysis of the French Revolution in the Phenomenology of Spirit. In the section titled Absolute Freedom and the Terror (1986 [1807]: BB, III), Hegel argues that absolute collective autonomy (the democratic expression of many particular volitions into the state’s universal will, Rousseau’s volonté general) necessarily leads to tension between the universal and the particular, because particular individuals can never fully identify with the universality of the state, since each individual is unique. The state as ‘executor’ of the universal will is therefore always – at least latently – at war with its own citizens: it can see the various particular departures from the universal will only as threats to be eliminated by reason of state, especially in times of crisis. Thus collective autonomy produces in its own body politic the Fremdkörper which it must exclude, through a Girardian scapegoat mechanism, in order to be itself.

Ever since the French Revolution, terrorism is a proven tactic of left-wing radicals advocating absolute (individual or collective) autonomy. See the “individual terrorism” of the anarchists, the Red Terror of the Bolsheviks, the attacks of the German RAF and the Italian Red Brigades. In recent Dutch history (which is my background in writing this piece), there is the murder of the right-wing populist politician Pim Fortuyn in 2002, committed by the left-wing animal rights activist Volkert van der Graaf. In this respect, left-wing terrorism is no different from its right-wing counterpart, the xenophobic violence of virulent nationalists. As Zygmunt Bauman argued in Modernity and the Holocaust (1989), the modern ideal of autonomy – the foundation of the Enlightenment’s critical attitude – led in its collective form not just to democracy but also to nationalism as the historical self-determination of a people. Here, that is to say: in Auschwitz, Barber’s dictum – “Self-determination has at times amounted to little more than other-extermination” – has found its paradigmatic vindication.

Modern morbidity
In light of the parallel between collective and individual subjectivity, something analogous to this internal production of Fremdkörper must also be found in individual autonomy. Hence Hegel’s argument with respect to absolute democracy has its counterpart in his analysis of individual freedom. Following Kant, Hegel understands the autonomous subject as standing above his biological existence: the subject must not be controlled by immediate urges, it must govern itself through reason, to which all natural instincts must be subjected, including the organic life instinct. Hegel’s conclusion is therefore that the subject can only prove his freedom to others and to himself by demonstrating his independence from life, by risking his life in mortal combat: “The absolute proof of freedom in the struggle for recognition is death. Already by the fact that both combatants risk the danger of death, they posit their shared natural being as something negative and thus they prove that take it to be a nothing.” (Hegel 1986 [1830]: §432, Zus., 221) For Hegel, then, dying is the highest form of freedom. The prevalence of this absurd contempt for death in modern philosophy reflects the dominance of Kantian autonomy. Firstly, of course, in Kant himself, the prophet of perpetual peace, for whom nevertheless a little war now and then was needed to impress on people the inferiority of their empirical existence. Cut from the same black cloth is Heidegger’s analysis of Being-unto-Death as authentic Dasein, trivialized into the existentialist fancy of suicide as the free act par excellence. But – so we may ask – is there not something fundamentally wrong with a conception of freedom for which death is the ultimate proof? Freedom must be an affirmation of life, not its negation. “A free man thinks of nothing less than of death”, Spinoza says: “his wisdom is not to meditate on death, but life.” (Ethics: IVP67)

This modern morbidity underscores the fact that the otherness, which the subject must exclude in order to be autonomous, comes not just from outside but is produced within, as through an internalization of the scapegoat mechanism. In order to achieve total self-control, the subject produces in himself the unruly nature to be conquered, cultivated and exploited. To the extent that people are social beings and their self-legislation arises from the internalization of group norms (embodied by the authority of the father), the meaning of modern autonomy is ultimately giving your life for the fatherland in the war with inferior others. In that sense, the Islamic terrorist blowing himself up in an attack on infidels is a truly modern autonomous subject. To repeat: Islamic fundamentalism is not alien to modernity, rather it holds up a mirror to the West: we may be shocked by what we see, but what we see is merely the balaclava face of our own culture, the reflection of autonomy’s inherent terror against otherness.

The epochal meaning of the “Clash of Civilizations”
In short, the so-called “Clash of Civilizations” between modernity and Islam is basically a conflict within modernity. Due to modern colonialism and subsequent capitalist globalization, modernity has now more or less conquered the globe and begins to bite its own tail. The modern subject has fallen prey to its own terror against otherness, to which it can only respond with counter terror: terror against modernity and its ideals of autonomy and democracy. Here lies the philosophical, even epochal significance of the “Clash of Civilizations”, in the self-dissolution of modernity, as it reverts into its own opposite. Western violence against otherness, usually hidden under an ideology of universal freedom and equality, appears nakedly in Islamic fundamentalism, stripped of its veil and exposed in suicide bombings. The religious heteronomy of the inviolable belief in the literal truth of the Koran is a manifestation of the dogmatism of the modern autonomous subject, his uncompromising belief in himself. It now becomes apparent to what extent the dialectic of the “Clash of Civilizations” is a self-reinforcing process, a negative feedback of orientalism and occidentalism, of terror and counter terror. If Islamic-fundamentalist terror increases, the West will be confirmed in its neoconservative distrust of Islam, thus increasing its islamophobic violence – resulting in a further alienation of modern muslims and their increased attraction by Islamic fundamentalism as a theology of anti-modern resistance and liberation. Caught in the maelstrom of a suspicious reflection, orientalism and occidentalism will increasingly meet each other’s fears. We have already seen this happen in the run-up to 9/11 and especially during its aftermath: Al Qaeda was the ghost raised by American imperialism, Bush was dialectical doppelgänger of Bin Laden – thesis and antithesis in a deadly dialectic, seemingly without any prospect of reconciliation.


-Barber, Benjamin (1995), Jihad vs. McWorld: How globalism and tribalism are reshaping the world. New York: Ballantine Books.
-Baugh, Bruce (2003), French Hegel: From surrealism to postmodernism. New York and London: Routledge.
-Beiser, Frederick (2005), Hegel. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
-Derrida, Jacques (1981), Dissemination. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
-Derrida, Jacques (2002), ´From restricted to general economy: A Hegelianism without reserve`, in: Derrida, Writing and difference. London and New York: Routledge.
-Hegel, G.W.F. (1986 [1807]), Phänomenologie des Geistes. Franfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.
-Hegel, G.W.F. (1975), Encyclopedia Logic. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

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