If I Should Write Anything…

If I should write anything,

if it could be eloquent and poignant,

I would scribble your name

all across and along

every one of my walls.

In, in between, and among

the lines and curves,

the lightness and the darkness,

where my hand presses

the dripping paintbrushes

softer or harder against each surface,

would be read all the paradoxes

of love and hate,

of freedom, peace, and justice,

all the contradictions,

of action and knowledge,

coalescing with the all encompassing

absurdity and meaninglessness,

the ambiguity and nothingness,

of this embodied, situated, existence.

Beyond U.S. White Supremacy

Rev. William Barber and the movement against U.S. white supremacy. Recognizing structural/systemic racism and the common social/political ground between U.S. blacks and whites; structural/systemic racism and the social/political divide between poor and working class whites and blacks.

See also:

Kimberlé Crenshaw on Intersectionality,


George Yancy, “Dear White America” series in The New York Times

Peggy McIntosh, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”

Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations”

Robert Jensen, “The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism, and White Privilege”

False “Freedom” Justifiably Denied

“At once the oppressor raises an objection: under the pretext of freedom, he says, there you go oppressing me in turn; you deprive me of my freedom. […] a freedom wills itself genuinely only by willing itself as an indefinite movement though the freedom of others; as soon as it withdraws into itself, it denies itself on behalf of some object which it prefers to itself […] [objects such as] property, the feeling of possession, capital, comfort, moral security […] We have to respect freedom only when it is intended for freedom, not when it strays, flees itself, and resigns itself. A freedom which is interested only in denying freedom must be denied. And it is not true that the recognition of the freedom of others limits my own freedom: to be free is not to have the power to do anything you like; it is to be able to surpass the given toward an open future; the existence of others as a freedom defines my situation and is even the condition of my own freedom.” – Simone de Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity, pp. 90-91

Tyke’s Embodied World of Pain: A Phenomenological Exploration by way of Sara Ahmed’s Theory of Affects


“Even as a youngster, [Susy] was a troublemaker, according to her former trainer. […] ‘She would resist the training,’ he said. ‘She would run away when you tried to do anything with her. She just didn’t have a good attitude.’ […] ‘When [a woman] gets spooked they normally try to get away,’ he said. ‘That [woman] didn’t want to get away. That [woman] wanted blood.’”[1]


The twenty-year-old individual in the above quote was kidnapped from her family as a baby, shipped like cargo across the ocean to a foreign country, subjected to physical and psychological abuse, forced to perform for others’ entertainment, and ended up being shot to death after killing one person and escaping from the place of her confinement.[2] In the above quote, I have modified some of the information in brackets. Read as it is, we are faced with an individual whose trauma was reduced to the individual’s own faults; the individual is portrayed as being uncooperative, having a bad attitude, and as having a violent hostility toward authority. What changes when one perceives of the individual in question as not a kidnapped twenty-year-old woman who was forced into modern day slavery, but instead as a twenty-year-old African elephant named Tyke?[3] The observable behaviors in question are transferrable from human to nonhuman animal. Both humans and nonhuman animals are taken from their homes and families, held and forced to perform acts against their will; both humans and nonhuman animals who have experienced traumatic events flee, kill, and are killed.

In The Cultural Politics of Emotion, Sara Ahmed asks: “What do emotions do?”[4] She responds: “Emotions shape the very surfaces of bodies, which take shape through the repetition of actions over time, as well as through orientations towards and away from others.”[5] Ahmed conceives of emotions as performative and world-making. Through the repetition of emotion, the psychological boundaries of one’s body becomes delineated and the socio-political world is made, replete with one’s orientations towards or away from objects in that world. Emotions “circulate between bodies” and “stick”, or become adhesively inseparable, to bodies and objects.[6]

In this paper, I would like to imaginatively explore the phenomenology of traumatic pain through the embodied perspective of Tyke and the theoretical perspective of Sara Ahmed. I say imaginatively because, as Ahmed points out, I cannot know Tyke’s pain; I cannot know any other embodied individual’s pain, only my own. But, what I can explore is the sociality of affects that reciprocally impresses upon Tyke through the stickiness of traumatic pain on objects. Moreover, I can explore the human fetishization of Tyke’s traumatic pain as well as the concept of remembrance as an ethical obligation in response to her pain.

Tyke’s Trauma and Ahmed’s “Impressions”

Tyke was taken from her family group in Mozambique when she was under a year old and shipped across the ocean to the United States as the property of the Hawthorne Corporation.[7] She was immediately put into “training” for the circus. One person who “trained” Tyke, described Tyke and the other elephants in captivity as “very bright,” “very intelligent,” with “very long memories.”[8] Science confirms this observation. Elephants have been shown to use objects as step ladders in order to reach food, to comfort through tactile contact and vocal sounds other elephants who display signs of physical or psychological distress, to recognize themselves in a mirror, to remember paths to water and food after not having travelled those paths for decades, and to touch, linger around, as well as put dirt and brush over dead companions.[9] These elephant behaviors are indicative of intelligent, self-aware, other-aware, and emotionally complex subjects with long term memories.[10]

Tyke’s behavior was described as being withdrawn and agitated around “trainers.” A “trainer” who worked with Tyke as an adult elephant described Tyke’s disposition around “trainers” as “very gun-shy, very touchy […] she was instantly expecting some type of punishment.”[11] Taking a lead from Descartes, Ahmed argues emotions do not spontaneously arise from a subject’s interaction with objects (or other bodies); objects do not somehow spontaneously cause a subject to feel an emotion.[12] Emotions involve perceptions of objects as being “beneficial” or “harmful,” but such perceptions are not inherent in the objects themselves. We perceive objects as beneficial or harmful because we have been affected by the objects in beneficial or harmful ways. Tyke’s withdrawn and agitated behavior was not a spontaneous response. Her behavior was indicative of a fear of being harmed.

Tyke (along with the other elephants) was chained up daily for twenty-two hours a day; unable to “wander around and visit and interact and do all the tactile stuff that elephants do so much of in their daily lives.”[13] The atmosphere was described as being abusive. The elephants were routinely “beaten until they were screaming.”[14] The bullhook is a wooden stick with a steel head that comes to a hooked-point. Its stated use is to control the elephants by hooking onto the elephant’s ears and mouths. A bullhook was used as the primary tool in “training,” (i.e. “beating up”) the elephants, so much so that the “trainer” could simply show the bullhook to the elephant and the elephant would submit.[15] Tyke, in particular, was described as requiring “a lot more discipline, a lot of heavy handed discipline” because she was “stubborn.”[16]

We can explore Tyke’s phenomenological experience through Ahmed’s conception of “impressions.” Impressions incorporate “acts of perception and cognition as well as emotion” with “how objects impress upon us.”[17] The phenomenological experience of emotion, bodily sensation, and thought is unable to be delineated into conceptual parts; the experience is not one of clearly defined bodily sensations, emotions, and thoughts.[18]

While increases in fecal glucocorticoid hormonal levels have been associated with stress and painful injuries in elephants, just like in humans, I am not aware of any comparative studies into elephant and human pain tolerance levels.[19] Nonetheless, we know that elephants feel pain and stress. We also have Tyke’s observable behaviors, and observable behaviors are indicators of physical sensations and emotions. If we allow that Tyke’s observable behaviors were indicators of pain and fear, then we can link Ahmed’s conception of impressions with Tyke’s phenomenological experiences.

When Tyke felt fear, she did not experience the fear as distinct from the bodily sensation of the bullhook on her skin nor as distinct from the thought of the bullhook in the hands of the “trainer.” The bodily sensation, the emotion, and the thought were all phenomenologically intertwined into an impression, and saturated throughout this experience was the history of her life in which the bullhook in the hands of the “trainer” had repeatedly been harmful to her.

Ahmed’s conception of impressions “allows us to associate the experience of having an emotion with the very affect of one surface upon another, an affect that leaves its mark or trace. So not only do I have an impression of others, but they also leave me with an impression; they impress me, and impress upon me.”[20] In the meeting of the bullhook with Tyke’s embodied history, her psyche, and her skin, the affect of the impression in this multivalent sense is that she feels fear. The emotion of “fear” is intentional, it is about and directed toward the bullhook and correlatively her “trainer”; emotions “involve a stance on the world, or a way of apprehending the world”; they “involve a direction or orientation toward an object.”[21]

The Historicity and Sociality of Tyke’s Fear

In the contact between ourselves and an object, we attribute benefit or harm to those objects, and then subsequently feel emotions toward those objects. Emotions arise from contact between subject and object (other body), and this contact involves socio-political histories that “come before the subject.”[22] In this sense, Ahmed states that “emotions are shaped by contact with objects, rather than being caused by objects,” thus, “emotions are not simply ‘in’ the subject or the object.”[23] Emotions, in other words, are relational; they are unable to be reduced to either the subject or the object singly; emotions are more than the sum of their parts.

Ahmed states “Emotions are both about objects, which they hence shape, and are also shaped by contact with objects.”[24] The fear Tyke felt was about the bullhook and gave the bullhook its form as fearful, but the fear Tyke felt was also fearful because the bullhook had the form it had. In other words, the fear Tyke felt was both an affect she attributed to the bullhook and an attribute that the bullhook had in itself. Tyke’s psyche made the bullhook fearful while at the same time the bullhook presented itself to her as fearful. Fear arose out of the multivalent impression when the bullhook contacted with Tyke as embodied. Moreover, memories of objects can incite emotions; “the feeling is shaped by contact with the memory, and also involves an orientation towards what is remembered.”[25]

Tyke’s long memory meant that the instances of her abuse, going back further into her past, would be more distinct. In 1994, Tyke attacked two of her “trainers,” killing one, during a show in Hawaii then fled into the streets of Honolulu where she was shot eighty-seven times to death. Commenting on Tyke’s fatal escape, the “trainer” suspects that Tyke fled because “She knew she would have been chained up. She knew she would have been beaten a lot.”[26] Tyke’s memory of the bullhook, and correlatively the “trainer,” invoked fear even when the bullhook was not contacting her and impelled her to flee.

The subject’s relation and reaction to an object “both shapes and is shaped by emotions”; “Emotions are relational: they involve (re)actions or relations of ‘towardness’ or ‘awayness’ in relation to such objects.”[27] Ahmed argues that the object, then, is not something simply presented to the subject. The object contains a history of impressions that remain active in our psyches and memories.[28] Objects can be interchangeable, where one object “may stand in for other objects,” or where objects may recall through likeness another object.[29] Through these psychic affective histories and resemblances, emotions “may stick to some objects, and slide over others.”[30]

The fear Tyke felt that sticks to the bullhook gets recalled in the sight of the “trainer,” as a human, in a metonymic slide.[31] That fear of the bullhook and her “trainer” seems to slide onto other male humans when she is seen in a videotape chasing a male passerby around a parked car.[32] Her fear stuck to the bullhook and “trainer,” and slid to other humans, to then stick onto the other humans. After Tyke’s death, the USDA seized the remaining elephants being held by the Hawthorne Corporation and released the elephants to an elephant sanctuary. Nicholas, an elephant who was held in captivity with Tyke, was described by a member of the sanctuary as “probably the most afraid of the target when we presented it. He would turn and duck his head and squint his eyes like he was anticipating being hit”; he had “that level of fear of something on a stick.”[33] The target referred to here is a wooden stick with a soft ball attached to the end that is used during medical check-ups. For Nicholas, the fear of the bullhook slid and stuck onto the target due to the target’s resemblance to the bullhook.

The bullhook and “trainer” for Tyke, their “aboutness,” was fear because the historicity of her experiences created these impressions. What is important for Ahmed is that these historical impressions are not formed by the subject in isolation. The historical impressions are tied to the larger socio-political culture. The objects and bodies that are perceived as beneficial or harmful are perceived as such within the interrelated weave of socio-political practices that have routinely stuck some emotions to some objects and bodies. The emotion does not reside in the subject nor the object, nor in a simple relation between the subject and the object. Instead the emotion emerges from the historical repetition experienced by the subject in relation to the object while immersed in the socio-political culture. If Tyke lived in a culture where the bullhook was not used as a means of inflicting harm, a culture that was also not imbued with conceptions of human superiority and violent domination, and she had no experiences connecting harm to the bullhook, then she would not have experienced fear in association with the bullhook and humans.

A “trainer” recalls being told in regard to the elephants, that “as long as they are afraid of you, then they are not going to do anything” and that “trainers” “have to beat them up if they show any kind of reluctance to do what you wanted.”[34] The “trainers” took pride in their ability to “beat-up” the adult elephants and bring “full grown elephants to their knees.”[35] Tyke’s fear was the result of her subjective encounter with the objects and bodies of others within a socio-political history. The socio-political histories that coalesced into her own subjective experience with the bodies of the “trainers” was one in which cultural practices of domination and violence are glorified.

Ahmed terms this interrelation the “‘sociality’ of emotion where “emotions should not be regarded as psychological states, but as social and cultural practices.”[36] Ahmed’s conception of the “sociality of emotions” entails a clear break from the dichotomized conception of the psychology of the individual and the sociality of the collective.[37] She suggests that “it is through emotions, or how we respond to objects and others, that surfaces or boundaries are made: the ‘I’ and the ‘we’ are shaped by, and even take the shape of, contact with others.”[38] The surface boundaries of our bodies “take shape” through the impressions, the meetings, of our bodies and objects or other bodies.[39] Emotions are not conjunctions of the individual and collective or the psychic and the social as clearly delineated aspects of experience.[40]

The fear Tyke felt was not an individual and isolated psychological state; it was the cultural conception of human superiority and cultural practice of glorified domination and violence woven into a historicity connecting Tyke, the bullhook, and the “trainer” to other humans and nonhuman animals in the present and past. Tyke’s fear is concomitant with an entire history of human domination of and violence against Tyke, other elephants, other humans, other nonhuman animals, and the entirety of nature that is still socially and politically operative in our culture at present.

Tyke’s World: Pain as World-Making

To try to understand Tyke’s phenomenological world, we should try to understand how elephants outside of captivity generally experience the world. Elephants have poor eyesight but highly developed senses of touch and smell; they communicate with and identify each other in close encounters through touches and over long distances with scents.[41] Elephant touch is a means of comfort, greeting, exploration, and play.[42] Their phenomenological worlds are touch driven. Moreover, their social worlds consist of close relationships among members of the group, and these relationships guide an elephant’s psychological and social development.[43] Young male and female elephants are cared for by the matriarchal familial group. Young elephants outside of captivity are solely dependent upon their mothers for nutritional sustenance for the first twenty-four months of life. Nonetheless, the young elephants are comforted, assisted, and protected by allomothers throughout the familial group.[44] Adolescent female elephants remain close to the matriarchal familial group and learn species and habitat specific survival information as well as take on the roles of allomothers.[45] Adolescent male elephants distance themselves from the matriarchal group, and join groups of adult males with whom they learn social and survival skills.[46] The grouping of young males with adult males also regulates the young males’ tendency toward risky and aggressive behavior by preventing the young males from going into musth prematurely.[47]

These social relationships are disrupted through culling within familial groups, poaching adult elephants, capturing young elephants for circuses or zoos, or relocating elephants away from their groupings. On the individual level, elephants whose social relationships have been disrupted have displayed behaviors associated with post-traumatic stress disorder and have “significantly higher fecal glucocorticoid values.”[48] On the social level, studies have indicated that elephants with severed familial relationships suffer from a host of problems, ranging from lower birth rates for females, higher incidents of hyper-aggression for males, and the inability to acquire and share species and habitat specific survival information.[49] Moreover, these problems appear to be intergenerational; the trauma seems to ripple through the group, being passed down from generation to generation, causing severe behavioral, physical, and reproductive difficulties for the group for decades.[50]

Understanding that the elephant’s phenomenological world is highly tactile and social leads us to understand how Tyke’s embodied world was made. Tyke was taken from her matriarchal familial group when she was less than a year old. She was subjected throughout her life, routinely, to painful beatings. These aspects of Tyke’s life established her embodied sense of the world. Ahmed argues that the psyche establishes the boundaries and surfaces of the body and objects in the world through the sensations of pleasure and pain.[51] It is not that pleasure and pain ontologically establishes the boundaries and surfaces of the body and objects so much as the conscious experience of pleasure and pain psychologically establishes the boundaries and surfaces. We become aware of the boundaries and surfaces of our bodies, as well as our bodies’ orientations in space through the sensations of pleasure and pain. In encountering pleasant and painful objects, the objects impress upon us, leaving impressions that accumulate overtime to constitute our bodily boundaries and surfaces.[52]

Ahmed states that “The affectivity of pain is crucial to the forming of the body as both a material and lived entity.”[53] Pain plays a particularly crucial role in the formation of the boundaries and surfaces of the body. Intensification of pain is how the world is made for the embodied subject; “It is through the intensification of pain sensations that bodies and worlds materialize and take shape, or that the effect of boundary, surface and fixity is produced.”[54] Pain draws one’s awareness to being embodied as well as entails a relation to that object or body that comes into contact with oneself.[55] Pain is felt as a violation or intrusion, as being against the boundaries and surfaces of one’s body; boundaries and surfaces are established through this felt sense of violation and intrusion.[56] Pain is world-making in the sense that it psychologically establishes the boundaries and surfaces of the subject and objects, it orients the subject in the world of objects and other bodies, and it simultaneously separates and connects us to objects and other bodies.[57]

Moreover, pain is world-making in the act of recognizing and interpreting the sensation given the historicity of impressions.[58] In the embodied lived experience, the sensation of pain is unable to be separated from emotion. In experiencing pain, the pain may be read as harmful and as something to avoid; it directs our orientation away from the object coming into contact with us. Within this movement, the reading and interpretation of the sensation as harm is interwoven with our past; with the historicity of our embodied experiences and the knowledge we have gained from those experiences.[59] Our past impressions serve to give the pain its character, and “how pain feels in the first place is an effect of past impressions, which are often hidden from view.”[60]

Not all pain is the same. Whether that pain is characterized by relief in having a wound carefully and tenderly treated, or is characterized by fear in being physically assaulted is dependent upon past impressions. In Tyke’s case, pain and fear was paramount. Tyke’s phenomenological world was filled entirely with a negative pain. She was denied the deep psychological and emotional relationships with her familial group. She was chained up daily for extended periods of time and denied social comforting touch with other elephants. Instead, she was routinely beaten. The borders and boundaries of her body were supposed to be marked by both pleasure and pain mediated by deep bonds with her familial group, bonds made physical in comforting tactile contact. Such embodiment would have served to both draw Tyke into her body as well as bring her out of her body. But, instead the borders and boundaries of her body were marked only by a negative isolating pain that drew her deep into her body in an attempt to retreat away from the physical assaults.

Pain is world-making in the sense that through it we come to understand the world and our contacts with objects or other bodies, for better or for worse. In this sense, Ahmed states that pain is contingently linked to sociality; in feeling pain or pleasure in our past impressions with others, we come to move away from some bodies that we interpret and read as harmful and move toward other bodies we interpret and read as beneficial.[61] For Tyke, her bodily orientation was to move away from humans and the bullhook. She was reported to have repeatedly walked away during “training,” and before the incident in Hawaii, she had attempted to flee from the circus at a stop in Altoona, PA in 1993.[62] Tyke was attempting to move away from the pain she read and interpreted as harmful, but she had nowhere to move toward.

When Tyke saw humans, she saw the bullhook, even when the bullhook was not present. After being repeatedly beaten, whenever she saw the bullhook, she felt fear and pain, even if the bullhook had yet to make contact with her skin again. In a metonymic slide, human equaled “trainer” equaled bullhook. Tyke’s world, past and present, was full of humans and bullhooks. In one sense, she was physically surrounded by humans and bullhooks, but in another sense, psychologically, the only objects that she could perceive were humans and bullhooks. Fear of pain and harm has a way of commanding our attention, to the point of commanding that our constant focus be on the objects that will cause us pain and harm.[63] Tyke’s world was hostile, violent, lonely, frightening, and painful.

Conclusion, An Ethics of Remembrance of Pain: The Ungraspability and Fetishization of Tyke’s Traumatic Pain

Of course, I cannot claim to know any of this for certain. My claims are meant as an exploration of Tyke’s situation based on her observable behaviors and Ahmed’s phenomenology of affects. But, perhaps it is here, in the “ungraspability” of Tyke’s pain that ethical obligations emerge.[64]

Quoting Elizabeth Spelman, Ahmed states “‘Compassion, like other forms of caring, may also reinforce the very patterns of economic and political subordination responsible for such suffering.’”[65] Compassion entails the positioning of a subject in relation to an object-other who is in pain. The subject’s feelings are differentiated from the object-other’s; “their feelings remain the object of ‘my feelings’, while my feelings only ever approximate the form of theirs.”[66] In this positioning, the subject is “elevated into a position of power.”[67] The subject is in the position of power to either disregard or relieve the object-other’s pain, and the object-other is in the position of only being able to be relieved of pain through the subject’s intervention.[68] The object-other’s pain becomes fetishized; it becomes detached from the historicity of the socio-political and cultural practices in which it emerged.[69] The object-other’s pain becomes linked only to the object of pain, and not to the historical circumstances of that pain. The only object that becomes visible is the wound; how the wound occurred becomes invisible. So, in the positioning of the subject over the object-other, “the [subject] takes, then gives, and in the moment of giving repeats as well as conceals the taking.”[70]

Ahmed suggests, “cautiously, and tentatively, that an ethics of responding to pain involves being open to being affected by that which one cannot know or feel.”[71] In witnessing the object-other’s pain, we come to feel pain. But, it is not their pain, it is our pain. We are unable to grasp the object-other’s pain. In recognizing that the object-other’s pain is ungraspable, we come to realize that our pain is ungraspable by others; as each of us is “thrown […] into a different bodily world.”[72] We subsequently become drawn to the surfaces and boundaries of our bodies through the ungraspability of pain; in not being able to grasp the object-other’s pain, and as pain psychologically establishes the surfaces and boundaries of our bodies, we get drawn back into our embodiment.[73] In other words, I cannot grasp Tyke’s pain, but in moving toward Tyke’s pain and realizing that her pain is ungraspable, I am pulled back into my body as a site of ungraspable pain. Ahmed states:

The sociality of pain – the ‘contingent attachment’ of being with others – requires an ethics, an ethics that begins with your pain, and moves towards you […] Insofar as an ethics of pain begins here, with how you come to surface, then the ethical demand is that I must act about that which I cannot know, rather than act insofar as I know. I am moved by what does not belong to me. If I acted on her behalf only insofar as I knew how she felt, then I would act only insofar as I would appropriate her pain as my pain, that is, appropriate that which I cannot feel.


It is precisely that Tyke’s pain is so ungraspable that it has ethical significance. Her pain as ungraspable is outside of any egoistic considerations for myself. Her pain is not my pain. Relieving her pain should not entail any egotistical benefits for myself. Relieving her pain becomes an ethical obligation in and of itself.

The ungraspability of Tyke’s pain is connected with the fetishization of her pain. On January 9th, 2016 Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus announced that it would discontinue elephant acts as of May 2016.[74] As of August 2016, Rhode Island and California have banned the use of bullhooks against elephants.[75] Such acts are positive steps in moving away from human domination of and violence against elephants. However, such acts could serve to fetishize Tyke’s pain. Compassion, from the subject position to Tyke as the object-other, transforms Tyke’s pain into an object of feeling for the subject. We cannot know Tyke’s pain from Tyke’s worldview, so our feelings of compassion make Tyke’s pain an object for us. In this transformation, we risk losing sight of the historicity of Tyke’s pain. We risk isolating Tyke’s pain to be all about the bullhook or a few humans, or worse to be all about us and our pain at witnessing her pain. Tyke’s pain was concomitant with an entire socio-political history and the cultural practices of human superiority and violent domination throughout that history. In losing sight of the historicity of Tyke’s pain, we fetishize it.

Ahmed argues that the ethical obligation is to remember how the pain was inflicted; to remember the historicity of the pain. Fetishization forgets the historicity of the pain, and in forgetting the historicity of the pain one is repeating the injurious act.[76]Ahmed states:

Following bell hooks, our task would be ‘not to forget the past but to break its hold’ (hooks 1989: 155). In order to break the seal of the past, in order to move away from attachments that are hurtful, we must first bring them into the realm of political action. Bringing pain into politics requires we give up the fetish of the wound through different kinds of remembrance. The past is living rather than dead; the past lives in the very wounds that remain open in the present. In other words, harm has a history, even though that history is made up of a combination of often surprising elements that are unavailable in the form of a totality. Pain is not simply an effect of a history of harm; it is the bodily life of that history.[77]


Tyke’s pain is a history of conceptions of human superiority and violent domination that goes back for centuries. The history of Tyke’s pain is not isolated to her. It is embodied in human interactions with other humans along with human interactions with other nonhuman animals. That history needs to be conceptually drawn out in its entirety. That history needs to be remembered in order to move toward healing the trauma that that history has caused countless embodied lives.

[1] Mark Sabbatini, “Trainer Tells of Killer Elephant’s History of Trouble, Bad Attitude,” Los Angeles Times, August 27, 1994 <http://articles.latimes.com/1994-08-27/local/me-31880_1_african-elephant&gt;, accessed May 8, 2017.

The quote without the modifications is: “Even as a youngster, Tyke the elephant was a troublemaker, according to her former trainer. […] ‘She would resist the training,’ he said. ‘She would run away when you tried to do anything with her. She just didn’t have a good attitude.’ […] ‘When an elephant gets spooked they normally try to get away,’ he said. ‘That elephant didn’t want to get away. That elephant wanted blood.’”

[2] James Cave, “Remembering Tyke, Rebellious Circus Elephant, and Her Tragic Death,” The Huffington Post, August 20, 2014 <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/08/19/tyke-elephant-honolulu-circus_n_5689932.html&gt;, accessed May 8, 2017.

[3] I draw this analogy not to minimize the issue of modern day slavery, but to try to communicate the arbitrariness behind delineations that disregard the seriousness of nonhuman animal slavery; both are serious issues and both demand attention, and moreover, both have been conceptually linked historically.

[4] Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion, p. 4

[5] Ibid. p. 4

[6] Ibid.

[7] Tyke Elephant Outlaw, directed by Susan Lambert and Stefan Moore (2015).

[8] Sally Joseph interview in Tyke Elephant Outlaw.

[9] Ferris Jabr, “The Science is in: Elephants are Even Smarter than We Realized,” Scientific American (February 26, 2014),

<https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/thescienceisinelephantsareevensmarterthanwerealizedvideo/&gt;, accessed May 8, 2017

[10] Ibid.

[11] Tyrone Taylor interview in Tyke Elephant Outlaw

[12] Ahmed, p. 5

[13] Joseph interview.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Johnny Walker interview in Tyke Elephant Outlaw.

[16] Taylor interview.

[17] Ahmed, p. 6

[18] Ibid.

[19] André Ganswindt, Stefanie Münscher, Michelle Henley, Rupert Palme, Peter Thompson, and Henk Bertschinger, “Concentrations of Faecal Glucocorticoid Metabolites in Physically Injured Free-Ranging African Elephants Loxodonta Africana,” Wildlife Biology vol. 16, no. 3 (2010), pp. 323-332, <http://www.bioone.org/doi/full/10.2981/09-081&gt;

[20] Ahmed, p. 6

[21] Ahmed, p. 7

[22] Ahmed, p. 6

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ahmed, p. 7

[25] Ibid.

[26] Joseph interview.

[27] Ahmed, p. 8

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Cf. Ahmed regarding metaphor and metonymy, p. 12; p. 76.

[32] Video footage in Tyke Elephant Outlaw.

[33] Margaret Whittaker interview in Tyke Elephant Outlaw.

[34] Joseph interview.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ahmed, pp. 8-9

[37] Ahmed, p. 10

[38] Ibid.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Jabr, online.

[42] P.C. Lee, “Allomothering Among African Elephants,” Animal Behavior vol. 35 (1987), pp. 278-291

[43] G.A. Bradshaw, Allan N. Schore, Janine L. Brown, Joyce H. Poole, and Cynthia J. Moss, “Elephant Breakdown,” Nature vol. 433 (February 24, 2005)

[44] Lee, “Allomothering Among African Elephants”

[45] Ibid.; Kate E. Evans and Stephen Harris, “Adolescence in Male African Elephants, Loxodonta Africana, and the Importance of Sociality,” Animal Behavior vol. 76 (2008), pp. 779-787

[46] Evans and Harris, “Adolescence in Male African Elephants”

[47] Ibid.

[48] Ibid.; K.S. Gobush, B.M. Mutayoba, and S.K. Wassert, “Long-Term Impacts of Poaching on Relatedness, Stress Physiology, and Reproductive Output of Adult African Elephants,” Conservation Biology vol. 22 no. 6 (December 2008), pp. 1590-1599

[49] Bradshaw et al., “Elephant Breakdown”; Gobush et al., “Long-Term Impacts of Poaching on Relatedness, Stress Physiology, and Reproductive Output of Adult African Elephants”; Graeme Shannon, Rob Slotow, Sarah M. Durant, Katito N. Sayialel, Joyce Poole, Cynthia Moss, and Karen McComb, “Effects of Social Disruption in Elephants Persist Decades after Culling,” Frontiers in Zoology vol. 10 no. 62 (2013), <http://www.frontiersinzoology.com/content/10/1/62&gt;

[50] Gobush et al., “Long-Term Impacts of Poaching on Relatedness, Stress Physiology, and Reproductive Output of Adult African Elephants”; Shannon et al., “Effects of Social Disruption in Elephants Persist Decades after Culling”

[51] Ahmed, p. 24

[52] Ibid.

[53] Ibid.

[54] Ibid., pp. 24-25

[55] Ibid., p. 26

[56] Ibid., p. 25

[57] Ibid., pp. 24-26

[58] Ibid., p. 25

[59] Ibid.

[60] Ibid.

[61] Ibid., p. 28

[62] Susan Lambert and Stefan Moore, Tyke Elephant Outlaw

[63] Cf. Ahmed regarding attachments, p. 28.

[64] Ahmed, p. 30

[65] Ibid., p. 22

[66] Ibid., p. 21

[67] Ibid., p. 22

[68] Ibid.

[69] Ibid., p. 11; p, 22

[70] Ibid., p. 22; I replaced “West” with “subject” for continuity, and as both denote a dominate position.

[71] Ibid., p. 30

[72] Ibid., pp. 30-31

[73] Ibid.

[74] Susan Ager, “Ringling Will Retire Circus Elephants Two Years Earlier Than Planned,” National Geographic, January 11, 2016 <http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/01/160111-ringling-elephants-retire/&gt;, accessed May 8, 2017.

[75] Brendan O’Brien, “California Governor Brown Signs Law Banning Use of Bullhooks on Elephants,” Reuters, August 30, 2016 <http://www.reuters.com/article/us-california-elephants-idUSKCN1150ET&gt;, accessed May 8, 2017.

[76] Ahmed, p. 33

[77] Ibid., pp. 33-34

The Myth of Woman as Nature: Myth-making, Existential Freedom, and Existential Morality in Beauvoir’s The Second Sex

Myths are world-making. In a phenomenological sense, the myths that we are born into, the myths that permeate the society in which our psychological development and a particular social ontology coalesce into an individual existence, create the world as we experience it. We are thrown into myths. We do not get to choose the myths that make our worlds. Well, at least not initially. To reject or perpetuate a particular myth is to choose which myths will continue to make our worlds, and this, I would argue, is for Simone de Beauvoir an act of freedom. Whether that freedom serves to promote or restrict other existents’ freedom is a question of existential morality. For this paper, I explore Beauvoir’s conception of existentialist freedom and morality through a few of her descriptive passages regarding the Myth of Woman as Nature. I begin with an exposition of Beauvoir’s concepts of existential freedom and existential morality, followed by an exposition of woman’s situation as it relates to myth-making. In the following three sections, I explore passages that relate to various Myths of Woman as Nature, namely, Mother, Spouse, Life/Death. I conclude by returning the discussion to the concepts of existential freedom and existential morality.

Existential Freedom and Existential Morality

Human existence is experienced as embodied in a society. The original position of embodied consciousness is one of duality and is reflected societally; a group “defines itself as One” while “immediately setting up the Other opposite itself”.[1] The consciousness as embodied in the Subject position posits the Other as distinct and opposing, and in doing so, the Subject “asserts itself as the essential and sets up the other as inessential, as the object”.[2] A society of Subjects and Others is, moreover, imbued with myths.[3] The situated existent lives out their transcendence and immanence in relation to myths that the Subject either incorporates into their becoming or not; myths that the Subject either ascribes to and perpetuates, or disavows and rejects, as part of their creative projects.[4] In this sense, the Subject furthers the creation of the original myth by taking the myth on as their own to then perpetuate the myth anew in society.

When two Subjects meet, each one is faced with the relativity of their Subject position; they experience themselves as the Object for the Other, and in this recognition a reciprocity arises in the relation between them.[5] The Subject needs the Other in order to move beyond embodied immanence; to continuously expand themselves beyond their facticity and for their freedom to be affirmed.[6] Man finds that nature does not suffice for transcendent movement because it is either assimilated or destroyed by the Subject leaving the Subject in isolation.[7] Therefore, man needs an Other with consciousness.[8]

However, the movement toward a free existent also entails conflict; each Subject seeks to assert itself as the dominant authority while reducing the Other to an inferior, dominated, state; each seeks to force the Other to affirm their freedom as Absolute.[9] However, dominance only exists in relation; the dominated are necessary for the dominant’s existence and as such the dominated become essential as the dominant become inessential.[10] Conflict is avoided if both Subject and Other freely and reciprocally recognize each other as both Subject and Other.[11] This movement requires that the Subject continuously “surpass himself at each instant”, but, such a movement is perilous and arduous; it may end in the Subject’s recognition never being reciprocated.[12] So, the Subject desires contradictions; to have both the transcendence of existence and the immanence of being.[13]

The Subject achieves freedom in transcendence. The subject achieves freedom in their projects; in expanding their existence continuously into the world and future.[14] Existential freedom is an autonomous and continuous becoming; a continuous going beyond oneself toward the Other. Existence becomes degraded every time a Subject halts this continuous becoming and seeks refuge in immanence; by solidifying their becoming into a facticity, which is to say, by making themselves into an object.[15] To solidify oneself into an object willingly is a moral failure on one’s own part, while to force another into a solidified object is oppression.[16] Existential morality requires never solidifying oneself or another into a set being, and it is not possible in isolation. Existential morality requires the reciprocal recognition between two free existents. In this continuous movement, toward the Other as a free existent, the Subject creates and gives meaning to themselves and the world; their freedom is recognized and affirmed reciprocally with the other Subject. The ongoing reciprocal movement urges both Subjects to continuously transcend themselves indefinitely.

Myth-making and Woman’s Situation

Woman’s situation is one in which she has been forced into a solidified inessential object position. While man is conceptually his own existent, woman is defined, “determined and differentiated in relation to man,” first and foremost as “a sexed being”.[17] Woman’s assigned definition locks her into a facticity as a sexual being in relation to man; “she is the inessential in front of the essential”.[18] She is the inessential being of a sexed relation defined by the free activity of man as essential; “He is the Subject; he is the Absolute. She is the Other”.[19] As the Other, woman is never able to transcend beyond the transcendence that forces her into immanence; she is the inessential who never reciprocally returns to the essential.[20] Man has forced woman into the position of the intermediary Other between a Nature that is too foreign to himself and other men who are too identical to himself.[21] As an inessential Other and a submissive consciousness she offers a way for man both to exist and to be, because she is neither indifferent to man nor demands reciprocal recognition.[22]

The Myth of Woman as Nature emerges from man’s desire to “accomplish himself as being through carnally possessing a being while making confirmed in his freedom by a docile freedom”.[23] Woman is both the inessential sexed object-being man seeks to possess as well as the submissive freedom that recognizes man’s freedom. In her, man perceives the “plentitude of being,” an abundance of solidified being, through which the nothingness of his existence, his lack of a solidified being, can create himself.[24] Woman is the freedom that man can surpass in order to create and give meaning to himself and the world, but who does not require reciprocal recognition. The reciprocal relation, where two Subjects reciprocally recognize each other as both Subject and Object, is absent in the relation between man and woman; woman’s submission to the status of the inessential Other occurs from the beginning and spontaneously.[25] Woman’s situation is one in which she is unable to posit herself as Subject.

Myth-making is a free activity of a Subject, “who projects its hopes and fears of a transcendent heaven,” onto the world, future, and others.[26] Subjects make myths, and as only men have posited themselves as Subjects, the myths of the world are men’s projections of their hopes and fears.[27] The creation of and giving of meaning to the world, to women, and to men themselves is all done through men; “women have not created the virile myth that would reflect their projects […] they still dream through men’s dreams”.[28] The world is made through myth in the image of man and man’s projects; men “describe it from a point of view that is their own and that they confound with the absolute truth”.[29] Woman is situated in a world in which she is represented to herself through man; she does not project herself into the world, instead she is projected on.

The Myth of Woman as Nature – Mother

Woman, like Nature, is ambiguous. Woman inhabits contradictions; she is both the solidified being of immanence and the Nothingness of existence that allows for transcendence. She is both the object that can be possessed and the consciousness that resists possession. As the Other, she is Evil, but because Evil is necessary for Good, she slips perpetually between Evil and Good.[30] Nature is both Life and Death. Nature is the fertile material source from which man’s existence emerged, is sustained, and which man transforms in his image at will to suit himself.[31] But, it is also a chaotic force that threatens to immerse him in the finitude of inert and dead matter; it is an opposing force to Man as Spirit.[32] Through man’s projections, Woman comes to embody Nature “as Mother, Spouse, and Idea” and each takes on the duality, the contradictions, man perceives in his own existence.[33] Man’s ambivalence to Woman as Nature reflects man’s ambivalence to his own existence which is at the same “consciousness, will, transcendence” and “intellect” as it is also “matter, passivity, immanence” and “flesh”.[34]

In one version, the Myth of Woman as Nature takes on the form of Mother. Woman’s ambiguity makes her seem magical. She is everything in nature that isolates man as a finite and contingent existent along with all in nature that allows man to surpass and move beyond himself to “commingle with water, earth, night, Nothingness, with the Whole”.[35] Beauvoir states:

Thus, Mother Earth has a face of darkness: she is chaos, where everything comes from and must return to one day; she is Nothingness. The many aspects of the world that the day uncovers commingle in the night: night of spirit locked up in the generality and opacity of matter, night of sleep and nothing. At the heart of the sea, it is night: woman is the Mare tenebrarum dreaded by ancient navigators; it is night in the bowels of the earth. Man is threatened with being engulfed in this night, the reverse of fertility, and it horrifies him. He aspires to the sky, to light, to sunny heights, to the pure and crystal clear cold of blue; and underfoot is a moist, hot, and dark gulf ready to swallow him; many legends have the hero falling and forever lost in maternal darkness: a cave, an abyss, hell. But once again ambivalence is at work here: while germination is always associated with death, death is also associated with fertility. Detested death is like a new birth, and so it is blessed.[36]


Earth is named Mother, and she is embodied. She has a face. To have a face is to be an entity that can turn and confront man. The face that confronts man is revealed as chaotic. Chaos, from the Greek word khaos, means a void or vast chasm; it is an emptiness devoid of structure and order. It is the Nothingness of man’s existence as a consciousness unconfined to a stable being. Chaos is the Mother’s womb; a chaotic space of darkness and fluidness, from which Nothingness emerges. Whereas daylight brings order and clear demarcations of boundaries that isolate one existent from another, night brings a commingling, an unorderly blending of boundaries.

Mother represents night; the lightless emptiness of the womb from which existence emerges; from which the Nothingness of existence is birthed. Mother represents opaque matter; a fluid and thick matter that lacks translucency and obscures meaning. Mother represents sleep; to sleep in the lightlessness and fluidness of the uterine night. To be asleep is to rest, but it is to be passive; it is to be unable to see with reality with clarity, and it is to be endangered. Mother represents the mare tenebrarum, the dark sea, in which man navigates his existence as well as that which is dangerously disorienting; that in which he can lose himself and drown. Mother represents the fertile, dark, moist matter that threatens to swallow man in the finitude of death; in passivity and immanence.

Man aspires to be pure Spirit and perform a heroic escape from finitude. Man aspires flight toward the transparency of the heavens; heavens illuminated with the clarity of distinction and demarcation. But, his feet are stuck in a thick soil that muddies existence with ambiguity. His existence is precarious; at any moment he can succumb to the chaos, fall into the abyss, and be swallowed into the cave. Mother is both Life and Death. She is both to be feared and revered; loved and hated.

In this myth, Mother is a magical force that both opposes the hero Man while at the same time giving Man the symbolic material to create his narrative of transcendence. Woman’s ambiguity and submissive freedom is necessary for this movement to occur.

The Myth of Woman as Nature – Spouse

The Myth of Woman as Nature takes another form, namely, that of Spouse. Mother and Spouse coalesce in woman’s horrifying yet magical ability to procreate.[37] The Spouse is “desirable prey”.[38] Woman as Nature – Spouse represents the riches of the earth that man seeks to possess.[39] In the imagery and imagination of man, woman’s body morphs into “all the fauna, all the earthly flora: gazelle, doe, lilies and roses, downy peaches, fragrant raspberries; she is precious stones, mother-of-pearl, agate, pearls, silk, the blue of the sky, the freshness of springs, air, flame, earth, and water”.[40] Beauvoir states:

Man finds shining stars and the moody moon, sunlight, and the darkness of caves on woman; wildflowers from hedgerows and the garden’s proud rose are also woman. Nymphs, dryads, mermaids, water sprites, and fairies haunt the countryside, the woods, lakes, seas, and moors. This animism is profoundly anchored in men. For the sailor, the sea is a dangerous woman, perfidious and difficult to conquer but that he cherishes by dint of taming it. Proud, rebellious, virginal, and wicked, the mountain is woman for the mountain climber who wants to take it, even at risk of life. It is often said that these comparisons manifest sexual sublimation; rather, they express an affinity between woman and the elements as primal as sexuality itself. Man expects more from possessing woman than the satisfaction of an instinct; she is the special object through which he subjugates Nature.[41]


The Myth of Nature as Woman – Spouse is man’s projection of woman as a magical and sexed object-being capable of being conquered and possessed through man’s virility. Nature’s garden of delights retains its desirability in the image of the virginal wilderness to be explored and conquered by man and in magical creatures taking the form of beautiful maidens who coyly resist man’s glances. The Spouse as prey is temperamental. Like the moon, she is reticent of unveiling her secrets, but her denial is ephemeral. Eventually, her secrets will be revealed in full to the heroic man able to decipher her. The Spouse as either an unrefined wildflower or a cultivated rose blossom for man; opening themselves and life to him.

The cave no longer represents the chaotic abyss of the maternal womb, but now is perceived as a site to be explored by man. The sea no longer represents a threatening force capable of disorientating and drowning man. While both the cave and sea retain their dangerous magic, the danger is now an enticing challenge for man. His Spouse cannot give herself too hastily to him, or else she would just be unconscious Nature proper. She must resist and rebel in order for man to satisfactorily transcend her as the Other. She must show that she is a consciousness because only a consciousness can affirm man in his projects. But, she must also be able to be subjugated. She must be transformed into a submissive object when confronted with man’s virility in order for man’s affirmation to be complete. This myth is not a mere transformation of sexual impulses, but a primal affinity; the Spouse as prey is the symbolic embodiment of man’s desire to conquer and possess all of Nature.

Man’s Spouse must, importantly, “embody the wondrous blossoming of life while concealing its mysterious disturbances at the same time” because “man cannot be enraptured in his embrace of a living thing unless he forgets that all life is inhabited by death”.[42] Nature appropriated is the appropriation of Life. Nature subjugated is the subjugation of Death. Through his Spouse, man conceives of himself as a virile force able to possess Life while conquering Death. The Spouse is the sexual object through which man feels himself as most transcendent, but at the risk of making himself flesh; at the risk of reducing himself to immanence.[43] Here, man experiences the duality and ambiguity of existence once again. When man posits himself as a Subject over his Spouse as the Other, he is an autonomous freedom ruling over the world.[44] Yet, at the same time in reducing himself to flesh he becomes “a limited and perishable object”; he is again reminded of the immanence of Death.[45]

The Myth of Woman as Nature – Life and Death

Woman always carries Death along with her. Man projects his own deterioration onto her aging body; her aging body becomes an object without value and evokes the image of Mother.[46] Beauvoir states:

The Mother dooms her son to death in giving him life; the woman lover draws her lover into relinquishing life and giving himself up to the supreme sleep. […] Born of flesh, man accomplishes himself in love as flesh, and flesh is destined to the grave. The alliance between Woman and Death is thus confirmed; the great reaper is the inverted figure of corn-growing fertility. But it is also the frightening wife whose skeleton appears under deceitful and tender flesh.[47]


In bringing man into life, the Mother has condemned man to death. The Mother is the ambiguous figure who is at one and the same time the bringer of both Life and Death. In bringing man into the flesh, the Spouse entices man into a lifeless slumber. Man seeks to escape from the finitude that psychologically haunts his existence through trying to appropriate life from the Spouse. He seeks to accomplish his freedom, to transcend the facticity of his embodiment, through the sexual act. But, in doing so, he is one again reduced to the immanence of the flesh that destines him to death. The Spouse is, then, the ambiguous figure who is also at one and the same time the bringer of both Life and Death.

Woman as Nature is the dual visage of fertility and sustenance on the one face, and deterioration and decrepitude on the other face. Despite woman’s duality, in the end man is always confronted with Death. Woman, thus, appears to embody Death concretely. Woman appears as the deceitful, magical, and dangerous specter whose objective existence is fundamentally oppositional to man.

Conclusion: Myth-making and Existential Morality

In each of these myths, woman is the symbolic representation of all of man’s hopes and fears as the bringer of Life and Death. As the bringer of Life, she is a symbol of hope. She is the Mother who births man both in the physical sense and the existential sense. She is the material sources that brings the Nothingness of existence into this world and along with it the possibility of transcendence. As the Spouse, she is the material sources on which men act in order to achieve transcendence. As the bringer of Death, she is a symbol of fear. She is the Mother who has condemned man to death, and she is the Spouse who reduces man to finite flesh.

In these myths, woman is reduced to an intermediary between Nature and other men. She is the abundance of being. She is all of the passive and inert objects of nature that man can act on and transform at will. Her solidified being, her facticity, is of the moon and stars, of fruits and flowers, of docile animals. But, she is also a consciousness that offers recognition and affirmation of man’s freedom. Her consciousness is magical, haunting, malignant, and temperamental, but it has to be. She has to be resistant to man in order for man achieve transcendence, but she cannot resist too much.

In these myths, woman is the privileged object through which man achieves transcendence, and it is a transcendence that seeks absolute submission from the Other. The Other needs to recognize and affirm man’s freedom as Absolute; to submit to being the inessential Other without demanding reciprocal recognition and affirmation. Woman, in these myths, epitomizes the inessential Other. She lacks activity; her only verb is “to be”. She is that which births man and dooms man to death, or she is that which resists only to succumb to man’s virility, or she is that which is horrifying. She does not birth, doom, resist, or horrify as an action stemming from a transcendent consciousness seeking to project itself into the world. Her abilities to birth, doom, resist, or horrify are not abilities at all, but instead are facts of her being. These are not activities that she chooses, but instead are just effects on man that are inherent in her matter as sexed object-being. Woman, in these myths, is fully denied Subject status.

In these myths, woman is fully denied her ability to transcend beyond herself. She is locked into immanence. She is locked into her facticity; into her situation. She is locked into a situation that has been created through man’s transcendence. Man transcends beyond himself in creating the Myth of Woman as Nature (as Mother, Spouse, Death). Woman has no myths of her own. She has created no myths about herself, man, or the world. The transcendent myths created by man serve to oppress woman by perpetuating her status as an inessential Other who is incapable of transcending beyond the verb “to be”; who is incapable of creating her own myths. But, it is not only woman’s freedom that is denied when woman’s transcendence is stifled. As man’s freedom also requires a continuous movement of himself into the world, a constant reciprocal movement toward and between Subjects who continuously urge each other to transcend indefinitely, man also denies his own freedom in denying woman’s freedom. In other words, Existential freedom is a constant movement of transcendence that requires the reciprocal recognition between Subjects. To halt this movement, or to limit this movement to only half the population and thus limit one’s opportunities for transcendence, denies oneself freedom.

Ultimately, I read Beauvoir as asserting that these myths are world-making. These myths narrate embodiment and, reciprocally, embodiment narrates these myths. This reciprocal movement is what makes these myths take on an aura of naturalization. But, these myths are not facticity nor are they absolute Truth. That we are born into these myths does not make them immutable or essential. They are pure contingency and they can be transcended. The re-creation and incorporation of these myths into our embodied existence is a moral failure. The choice to reject or perpetuate these myths is a world-making moral choice between oppression and freedom, for oneself and Others.

[1] Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, trans. Constance Borde and Shelia Malovany-Chevallier (New York City: Vintage Books, 2010) p. 6

[2] Ibid. p. 16

[3] As well as customs, values, laws, taboos, norms, etc.

[4] Ibid. p. 47

[5] Ibid. p. 16

[6] Ibid. p. 159

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid,

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid. p. 160

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid. p. 16

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid. p. 6

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid. pp. 16-17; 160

[21] Ibid. p. 16

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid. p. 161

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid. p. 7. I will be using the terms “man” and “woman” throughout my exegesis of Beauvoir’s work. I do so only with the intention of connoting “man” as “masculinized existents” and “woman” as “feminized existents”.

[26] Ibid. p. 162

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid. pp. 162-63

[31] Ibid. p. 163

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid. p. 167

[36] Ibid. pp. 166-67

[37] Ibid. p. 167

[38] Ibid. p. 174

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid. pp. 174-75

[41] Ibid. p. 175; emphasis is mine.

[42] Ibid. p. 176

[43] Ibid. p. 180

[44] Ibid. p. 180

[45] Ibid.

[46] Ibid. pp. 178-79

[47] Ibid. p. 183

Sara Ahmed’s Feminist Attachment to Anger

In the “Feminist Attachments” chapter of Cultural Politics of Emotion, Sara Ahmed addresses the silencing of feminist voices through an argument that re-conceptualizes feminist political theory as attachment to emotions. Feminist voices that challenge the taken for granted, naturalized, and thus invisible, norms of the neoliberal West – norms that create worlds based on the “truths” of some at the exclusion of others – have been consistently silenced as being too emotional. Such silencing implies the underlying assumptions that (1) emotion is inimical toward and incompatible with reason and (2) that reason is superior to emotion. Such a dualistic hierarchy “translates into a hierarchy between subjects” where reason is associated with the masculine and Western whereas emotion is associated with the feminine and racial others. This serves to silence those who fall on the emotional side of the duality by excluding them from rationality. Instead of arguing for the rationality of feminist discourse, which would fall back into the dualistic value hierarchy of reason vs. emotion, Ahmed argues feminist discourse needs to attach itself to the rationality (thought) of emotion and, mutually interpolated, the emotionality (embodiment) of reason – an interrelation that is concealed through the dualistic projection of reason and emotion onto embodied subjects.

Ahmed engages with Wendy Brown’s concept of “wounded attachments” in which Brown argues that feminism’s attachment to the harms inflicted upon women, i.e. the violence enacted upon women by the norms of the neoliberal West, conserves and codifies the very norms in the social-political-legal identity of women, giving women no way to ever let go of the wound. Moreover, such wounding is universalized when it is conserved and codified as a social-political-legal identity, as if all women are harmed similarly under patriarchy, which ignores the complex histories of differential woundings. While Brown argues feminism ought to let go of its attachments, Ahmed argues that feminism ought to attach to emotionality.

Ahmed states that feminism based on suffering, in which women’s pain becomes a fetish object – with the underlying assumption that women’s suffering could be represented and then that such representation could be used to identify legitimate and illegitimate feminism – could “work to delegitimate feminist attempts to understand the complexity of social and psychic life” (p. 173). However, despite there being good reasons for not basing feminism on women’s pain,

“our response to ‘wound fetishism’ should not be to forget the wounds that mark the place of historical injury. Such forgetting would simply repeat the forgetting that is already implicated in the fetishising of the wound. Rather, our task would be to learn to remember how embodied subjects come to be wounded in the first place, which requires that we learn to read that pain, as well as recognise how the pain is already read in the intensity of how it surfaces. The task would not only be to read and interpret pain as over-determined, but also to do the work of translation, whereby pain is moved into a public domain, and in moving, is transformed. In order to move away from attachments that are hurtful, we must act on them, an action which requires, at the same time, that we do not ontologise women’s pain as the automatic ground of politics.” (pp. 173-174)

Recall here Ahmed’s conception of the ethical-political as involving a remembrance of the historical conditions of suffering, and bearing witness to the presence of suffering in the here and now through an acknowledgment of the historicity of that suffering. Recall also Ahmed’s claim that there is no private suffering – that suffering marks its subjects in various ways, some ways that may be more visible than others, yet, nonetheless surfaces in various intensities. Here, Ahmed is tying these concepts together with an ethical-political imperative to act on hurtful attachments by reading, interpreting, and translating that pain in order to transform it. Feminism’s task, for Ahmed, is to respond “to the pain of others, as a pain that cannot be accessed directly, but is only ever approached” (p. 174). And, in order to respond to pain, feminism must open up a safe space for the disclosure of pain, for the “speaking about pain”. The disclosure of pain in speech acts, for Ahmed, is a condition that allows for a “we” unified in “different stories of pain that cannot be reduced to a ground, identity or sameness” (p. 174).

Ahmed further challenges Brown’s conception of “wounded attachments” by challenging Brown’s conception of feminist anger as ressentiment. While Brown conceives of feminist anger based on historical suffering as reactionary – and thus unable to let go of the power oppressing them as well as act authentically from their own values and principles – Ahmed argues Brown’s form of detachment is impossible because it assumes the embodied subject can be removed from the historical conditions impressed upon them. Ahmed states, “There is no pure or originary action, which is outside such a history of ‘reaction’, whereby bodies come to be ‘impressed upon’ by the surfaces of others” (p. 174). We are already caught in a web of impressions as interrelated histories and there is no subject position outside of such historical conditions. Ahmed argues what feminism is is deeply interconnected with what feminism is against; the impressions of historical violence against embodied subjects is both what feminism is and is against. Feminist anger as against-ness would be the response to the impossibility of a subject position outside such historical conditions.

Anger is an appropriate political and ethical feminist response to historical violence and suffering. Anger is a movement that interprets and transforms that historical violence and suffering; it is a way of moving from pain, to recognizing that such pain is wrong, to acting to transform the social and political conditions that gave rise to that pain. As such, anger is an attachment worth holding onto. Utilizing the work of black feminist Audre Lorde, and social psychologist Carol Tavris, Ahmed argues that anger, affectively and effectively, is world-making. She states, feminist anger “is not simply defined in relationship to a past, but as opening up the future” (p. 175). It is an against-ness that also entails a for-ness, and with this it at once recognizes the historicity of suffering while imagining a futurity of different possibilities.

Attachment to anger involves interpreting and delineating what one is against. Anger moves from recognizing against-ness to interpreting what one is against, “whereby associations or connections are made between the object of anger and broader patterns or structures” (p. 175). Anger here serves an epistemological function in that the object of anger then becomes delineated and a language is created in order to bring the object into the world and respond to it. The object is then not the foundation of feminism, as Brown seems to assume, but an effect of anger’s movement outward toward the world of historical suffering that also opens up possibilities for a different future. The epistemological work in feminism to name and respond to an object of anger has taken many forms dependent upon each individual subject’s experiences. Thus, in order for feminism to continually open up possibilities for the future, feminism must be open to losing its object of anger. It is the object of anger, and not the against-ness of anger, that is to be detached from. Anger in this sense is world-making in that it both brings into existence a different conceptual world than the world structured by naturalized norms, norms that may have been at one time feminist creations, and as such brings into possibility a new future world.

Instead of thinking of anger as opposed to reason, Ahmed suggests that we think about anger as a speech act. Ahmed acknowledges that the speaker’s anger may not work as a political act if the addressee returns the anger without receiving the message behind the anger. If the addressee simply receives anger, the addressee could respond simply with anger. Nonetheless, Ahmed asserts that “the performance of anger – as a claim of against-ness – may work; it may ‘get uptake,’ and be received by the addressee” (p. 177). Ahmed advocates for feminism to take “an engaged stance” that recognizes that feminist voices are embedded in historical conditions in which feminist anger may be received in such a way that sustains those very conditions, but to nonetheless persist in speaking. An engaged stance would also recognize when we, as individuals or as a collective under the name of feminism, could be silencing the anger of other feminists. Ahmed states:

“Learning to hear the anger of others, without blocking the anger through a defence of one’s own position is crucial. Such a project requires that one accepts that one’s own position might anger others and hence allows one’s position to be opened to critique by others (it does not then, like guilt or shame, turn the self back into itself by ‘taking’ that anger as one’s own). As Berenice Fisher argues: ‘The voices that make us most uncomfortable and the feelings that accompany them constitute a built-in critique of our ideals’ (Fisher 1984: 206). The fact of resistance within feminism to hearing the anger of some feminists is a ‘sign’ that what ‘we are against’ cannot be relegated to the outside. We need to take care not to install feminist ideals as ideals that others must embody if they are to pass into feminism. Such a reification of political ideals would position some feminists as ‘hosts’, who would decide which others would receive the hospitality of love and recognition, and would hence remain predicated on a differentiation between natives and strangers (see Ahmed 2000). To avoid such a politics, we may need to stay uncomfortable within feminism, even when we feel it provides us with a home. This discomfort, as I discussed in the previous chapter, means ‘not sinking’ into the spaces in which we live and work, and it means always questioning our own investments.” (p. 178)

Feminists need to learn to hear the anger of others who have experienced the historicity of suffering differently as an ongoing critique of naturalized norms. In the introduction, Ahmed stated:

“So not only do I have an impression of others, but they also leave me with an impression; they impress me, and impress upon me. […]Emotions are intentional in the sense that they are ‘about’ something: they involve a direction or orientation towards an object. […]Emotions are both about objects, which they hence shape, and are also shaped by contact with objects. […]The memory can be the object of my feeling in both senses: the feeling is shaped by contact with the memory, and also involves an orientation towards what is remembered. […]Emotions are relational: they involve (re) actions or relations of ‘towardness’ or ‘awayness’ in relation to such objects. […]If the object of feeling both shapes and is shaped by emotions, then the object of feeling is never simply before the subject. How the object impresses (upon) us may depend on histories that remain alive insofar as they have already left their impressions. The object may stand in for other objects, or may be proximate to other objects. Feelings may stick to some objects, and slide over others.” (pp. 6-8)

If we understand Ahmed as asserting that each of us exists in our own psychological world – phenomenologically we exist in a world we affectively experience as our own, with only our own direct access to but nonetheless is lived as intentional, directed outward toward others and objects; each world creating a multitude of worlds within the world at large; worlds that impress upon each other and thus are mutually constructing/constructed by each other; worlds interconnected through naturalized norms that have a historicity of impressions upon us as either the violated or the violating; norms that are either invisible or visible to us and that we either adopt or are opposed to – then what feminists need to do is to learn to hear and read the anger of others as an ongoing critique of the worlds we differentially inhabit. Ahmed advocates anger as a worthwhile feminist attachment because anger, anger that is not attached to an immutable object that serves to define whose experiences are legitimate, but anger as an ongoing critique of the worlds we inhabit, is a movement that opens up oneself to the shared world at large and the possibilities for creating new worlds. For this movement to happen, we may need to stay uncomfortable, to stay angry, to stay wounded, and to stay attached, in feminism.

Close Reading: Irigaray’s Deconstruction of Heidegger’s/Plato’s Being

Infinite projection – (the) Idea (of) Being (of the) Father – of the mystery of conception and the hystery where it is (re)produced. Blindness with regard to the original one who must be banished by fixing the eyes on pure light, to the point of not seeing (nothing) anymore – the show, the hole of nothing is back again – to the point at which the power of a mere bodily membrane is exceeded, and the gaze of the soul is rediscovered. A-lētheia.

This pasage is found in the section entitled “Plato’s Hysteria” (Speculum of the Other Woman, p. 315). In this section, Irigaray deconstructs Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.” Irigaray offers a psychoanalytic reading of the allegory in which the lover of wisdom’s path to Truth originates in the materiality of the cave/womb and culminates in the rediscovering / revealing / unconcealing of the Truth of the immateriality/immortality of the essence of Being. Irigaray’s larger project in Speculum is to deconstruct major texts in psychoanalysis and philosophy, offering a reading in which such texts construct a phallocentric conception of subjectivity that relegates the feminine to a material, embodied, non-subjectivity.

Irigaray applies many psychoanalytic concepts in this passage. The infinite projection Irigaray speaks of, the transference of one’s own unconscious impulses onto the other, is mediated by (the) Idea (of) Being (of the) Father. There are multiple interrelated ways to read this. One is as “the Idea of Being of the Father” in which case the projection takes the absolute and unchanging essence of the Father as ultimately the sole creative actor. Another way is as “the Idea of Being Father” in which case the projection sublimates one’s unconscious impulses into the creative Father and in which one comes to take on this ideal role. The projection serves as a way for the father to go back into the mother and guide himself out, himself as reflected in and through his son; a son who then picks up the role of the Father. Through this projection, the hystery, the narrative of the womb, of the mother/originator is forgotten. The projection serves as a pure, bright, light that blinds the masculine subject to the (focal) point of not seeing (nothing) anymore; of not seeing the spectacle of birth, the show (pre-labor blood), and the cave of origination anymore. Gazing at the focal point of pure light, the unified phallus of the Father, the son is freed from the powerful materiality of the womb; a womb that has doomed him to death. In this gaze that conceals the hystery, the son has rediscovered/revealed/unconcealed the Truth of his immortal and immaterial essence.

Within feminism, Irigaray challenges binary conceptions of masculine / feminine subjectivity as well as the formation of the masculine phallocentric subjectivity. In this passage, Irigaray is conveying the way the formation of masculine subjectivity within a binary psychosocial-linguistic morphology necessarily excludes any possibility of feminine subjectivity.