The Imaginary, Freedom, and Bad Faith in Sartre’s Black Orpheus


When Jean-Paul Sartre wrote Black Orpheus[1] in 1948, continental intellectuals had already become acquainted with his work in Being and Nothingness (1943)[2] and to a lesser extent in The Imaginary (1940).[3] Sartre argues in Black Orpheus that Négritude poetry is a revolutionary act that asserts the objective subjectivity of the colonized and enslaved African peoples through various literary techniques that dialectically oppose, transpose, and synthesize the Manichean dichotomies of whiteness that are subsumed within the white colonizers’ language. With the publication of Black Orpheus in French and English speaking anthologies devoted to the poetry of the Négritude movement, Sartre entered into a political discussion that today can broadly be recognized within Critical Whiteness Studies. In this paper I explore how phenomenological and existentialist concepts in The Imaginary and Being and Nothingness inform Sartre’s perspective in Black Orpheus.

I must make several admissions. I admit that a limitation of this present paper is a lack of depth into the works of prominent Négritude intellectuals, such as Aimé Césaire and Léopold Sédar Senghor. A study of how Sartre’s concepts in Black Orpheus developed due to and in response to the work of Négritude intellectuals would be a significant and important study. Moreover, it would be an equally important and significant study to question Sartre’s reading of these intellectuals and whether and to what extent Eurocentric whiteness is lingering within Sartre’s concepts. In fact, much of Black Orpheus could be criticized for speaking inappropriately and inaccurately for Négritude intellectuals.[4]

However, both of these issues would focus on different questions than what is presently being considered. The present issue considered is Sartre’s application of his earlier concepts to a concrete social and political movement in which people have been oppressed and exploited due to in part being assigned an inferior ontological status. Contemporary Négritude scholars acknowledge that the main point and value of Black Orpheus is in drawing attention to Négritude arguments that deconstruct “through radical critique and counter-construction” the image of “the African invented by Europeans.”[5] In this vein, I wish to focus on Sartre’s challenges to Eurocentric whiteness which also requires understanding how Sartre applies his earlier concepts to his analysis of Négritude. The relevance of this present study is in how Sartre’s concepts may be applied to or critiqued by Critical Whiteness Studies.

Sartre begins Black Orpheus by addressing Eurocentric white people directly. Sartre states:

When you removed the gag that was keeping these black mouths shut, what were you hoping for? That they would sing your praises? Did you think that when they raised themselves up again, you would read adoration in the eyes of these heads that our fathers had forced to bend down to the very ground? Here are black men standing, looking at us, and I hope that you – like me – will feel the shock of being seen. For three thousand years, the white man has enjoyed the privilege of seeing without being seen; he was only a look – the light from his eyes drew each thing out the shadow of its birth; the whiteness of his skin was another look, condensed light. The white man – white because he was man, white like daylight, white like truth, white like virtue – lighted up creation like a torch and unveiled the secret white essence of beings. Today, these black men are looking at us, and our gaze comes back to our own eyes; in their turn, black torches light up the world and our white heads are no more than chinese lanterns swinging in the wind.[6]

This passage is worthy of being quoted in its entirety because of just how philosophically infused it is with Sartrean concepts. I will proceed by looking more closely at this passage as it regards other portions of the essay while simultaneously drawing out Sartrean concepts of the image, bad faith, “the look,” being, negation, responsibility, and freedom. I will do so by beginning my examination with how Sartre conceives of these concepts as relating to the Négritude poet’s construction of the individualist image of African blackness, followed by the poet’s deconstruction of the individualist image of European whiteness, and concluding with the poet’s reconstruction the relational image of African blackness and European whiteness.

Construction of the Image of African Blackness: The Imaginary and Freedom

Throughout Black Orpheus, Sartre speaks of the Négritude poet’s use of the image in order to liberate black imagination.[7] This liberation is correlated to the oppression of the black imagination by the white imagination. Subsumed in this correlation we find individualist and relational images. There are images in which the individual conceives of themselves as they are in themselves. There are also images in which the individual conceives of themselves as they are in relation to “the other.” In this passage, we are given the image of African blackness in relation to European whiteness, and vice versa. We are also given the image of how whiteness conceives of itself and how blackness conceives of itself. In this image, whiteness conceives of itself as an objective truth, the immutable and normative essence of beings, worthy of adoration. Blackness conceives of liberating itself through a process of imagining itself apart from the judgments of the white imagination.

The image of blackness or whiteness is consciousness in action.[8] It is an intentional and synthetic act that aims toward an object that is absent through an analogous representative, i.e. an analogon.[9] Consciousness directs itself toward an object, in this case blackness or whiteness, absent in its concrete physical or psychic form in order to make the object present in imagination.[10] The image, as quasi-observation, does not provide any new knowledge regarding blackness or whiteness.[11] It is instead constituted by our embodied experiences of the world, what we know of the world, and what we creatively put into the image.[12] Thus, the image is presented as a spontaneous creation, a lack, and as “nothingness.”[13] Both the poet and the white person in this sense are directing themselves toward the object of African blackness or European whiteness in order to make each the absence-made-present.

The content, or the source of the poet and white person’s image, is the analogon which in turn is comprised of kinaesthetic and affective elements.[14] Words in general can serve as signs that can direct consciousness toward a concrete form.[15] In reading, “the reader is in the presence of the world.[16] Words as signs, however, are different from the images that the poet aims at. The poet’s words do not seek to be signs that emptily refer to objects in the world, but instead the poet’s images are filled with the “presence” of the object aimed at.[17] The poet’s images are filled with blackness and whiteness as experienced in the world.

Thus, literature becomes the poet’s instrument of constructing their image of blackness, because it is only in literature that the “the sphere of objective signification becomes an irreal world.”[18] Only literature can serve as an analogon for the image of blackness and whiteness.[19] The poet uses literature as an analogon for the individualistic and relational images of blackness and whiteness. Blackness and whiteness concretized in embodied, temporal and geographical experiences become the psychic objects that the poet aims for.[20] The image of whiteness is relationally comprised of the lived embodied experiences of the poet through the poet’s knowledge of their own blackness; through embodied experiences with whiteness, “blackness has passed from the immediacy of existence to the meditative state.” [21] In the irreal world, the poet aims at their own blackness which subsequently nihilates and posits the irreal world of whiteness at the same time.

The poet’s imagination creates an irreal world, with an imaginary Africa from which they are descended and at the same time nihilates and posits an imaginary Europe in which they have been entrapped, with each populated by the objects of blackness and whiteness within their thought.[22] The poet’s images of Africa and Europe are a synthesis of physical and psychic aspects, with kinaesthetic and affective aspects.[23] In this irreal world, the poet’s retention (remembrance) and protention (anticipation) constitute a movement of judgment-making in irreal space and time; where objects are located in an indeterminate space, time is fragmented, and both space and time become “absolute qualities” of the objects.[24] The image of blackness becomes imbued with movements and feelings of the imaginary Africa in an irreal space and time; where Sartre sees the poet’s African blackness imagined as a palpitating “silky wing” pressed against the body, “spread throughout him like his searching memory,” like a “betrayed childhood,” like “the swarming of insects and the indivisible simplicity of Nature, like the pure legacy of his ancestors.”[25]

The poet’s feelings are an intentional act which “aims at an object but it aims in its own manner, which is affective.”[26] The poet’s desire is particularly imaginary. Their desire seeks to obtain in the perceptual world what is affectively sought after in the irreal world.[27] The poet’s desire is to reveal their African subjectivity as an objective value freed from the whiteness that entraps their thought in the colonizers’ land and language.[28] The poet’s image of blackness and whiteness, in unreflective consciousness, is “constituted by a certain way of judging and feeling of which we do not become conscious as such but which we apprehend on the intentional object as this or that of its qualities,” which is to say “the function of the image is symbolic.”[29]

The image of blackness and whiteness is a symbol for what the imaginer puts into the image. “Imaged comprehension” teaches us nothing about the object itself but it can teach us about what consciousness and one’s thoughts must be so that one imagines and imagines the object as one does.[30] The image is a “presentifier” in that it is “the object of our thought giving itself to consciousness”; it is a “sens” or a “self-referring” “presence” that “‘incarnates’ a totality” of the object “but not in all its parts.”[31] The image of African blackness or European whiteness refers to a totality of affective and kinaesthetic qualities that give the objects a symbolic sense. Whiteness is imagined as Europe, as “cold,” full of “gray crowds,” “the land of exile, colorless” and blackness is imagined as “dazzling Africa,” “of fire and rain”; both make the images of blackness and whiteness fully present through symbolizing a totality of (and thus going beyond the separate) physical and psychic aspects to which the images refer.[32]  The image of blackness and whiteness “makes present a reality which eludes our conceptual and our perceptual awareness.”[33] The poet’s act is a “magical” “incantation destined to make the object of one’s thought, the thing one desires, appear in such a way that one can take possession of it.”[34] It is exactly in this magical sense that Sartre sees the poet as imagining African blackness.

In taking possession of their blackness in an irreal world, the poet is expressing their freedom. Imagining is an unreflective act (in that in imagining one does not reflect upon what one is doing) that takes place within a situation; from a “particular viewpoint from which constitutes the world at the unreflective level.”[35] Understanding the poet’s motivation for taking on the imaginative act reveals aspects of the situation; “the imagining act emerges from and is revelatory of a situation.”[36] The imagining act reveals what consciousness must be in order to imagine; namely, “nihilating, intentional, nonsubstantial, situational, creative, and free.”[37] Unreflective consciousness, in recognizing itself as non-identical with the world, things in the world, and its own past, as well as by intending itself creatively toward an irreal object, expresses its “transcendental freedom”; it moves beyond the world and is the site of human freedom, a possibility beyond one’s human situation.[38]

Deconstruction of the Image of European Whiteness: The Imaginary and Bad Faith

The poet finds themselves in a situation in which they are entrapped in European whiteness. Through a creative synthesis that uses the colonizers’ language to silence the language while simultaneously reducing dichotomous hierarchies into an uneasy mélange, the poet constructs the image of blackness, which subsequently deconstructs the image of whiteness.[39] Sartre argues that it is because the Négritude poet imaginatively constructs the individualistic image of blackness, that they reconstruct the relational images of both blackness and whiteness, while at the same time they deconstruct the individualistic image of whiteness. The image, in this sense, is an act of freedom that transcends the poet’s situation as well as a proclamation of the white person’s responsibility in their bad faith.

While the poet’s act is an imaginative act of revolutionary freedom, the white person’s act is an imaginative act of bad faith. The act of imagination is central for either the move toward freedom or toward bad faith.[40] The imaginary attitude makes possible “the use of various strategies to deceive oneself into believing whatever it is that one wants to believe.”[41] Whiteness as the image of objective truth, worthy of adoration, and the immutable and normative essence of being is an imaginative technique that allows white people “to hide aspects of ourselves from ourselves and each other.”[42] The white person in bad faith is “hiding a displeasing truth or presenting as truth a pleasing truth.”[43] The white person, in order to hide a displeasing truth or present as truth a pleasing truth to themselves, must in their unreflective consciousness know that of which they are hiding or misrepresenting, that is to say “consciousness is fully self-transparent.”[44]

Sartre’s critique of whiteness addresses itself to the white person who fails to go beyond the cultural values associated with their facticity because they are unreflectively locked into their situation; they occupy the image of whiteness from within an unreflective consciousness. Caught unreflectively within the transcendent image of whiteness, within a transcendence that affirms itself as their facticity, they imaginatively misrepresent to themselves truth.[45] It is an image of a whiteness that is not colonizing and oppressing, but instead is something to be adored. It is an image of whiteness as the objective norm from which all values are given. It is the image of whiteness as the immutable and normative essence of all being.

The white person fails to see the negation of being and the contingency of their situation. They fail to see that they are “a being which is what it is not and which is not what it is.”[46] They fail to see that consciousness must be “contingent in order that there may be a consciousness rather than an infinity of pure and simple in-itself.”[47] They fail to see themselves as a for-itself; as a being whose existence entails a double negation that disallows them an immutable essence to which normative values are automatically affixed. The nothingness of being at the core of existence for the for-itself is what makes values and freedom possible. They fail to see that “nothing makes values exist – unless it is that freedom which by the same stroke makes me myself exist.”[48] Moreover, “Just as there can be lack in the world only if it comes to the world through a being which is its own lack, so there can be possibility in the world only if it comes through a being which is for itself in its own possibility”[49] Only a being who lacks an immutable and normative essence can have possibility and freedom.[50] As Thomas Flynn explains, “This nonidentity of consciousness with itself is the ontological root of Sartrean freedom just as self-transparency is the source of Sartrean responsibility: each one ‘knows’ what he is doing.”[51] The Eurocentric white people Sartre is addressing fail to see the possibility, freedom, and responsibility in their contingency.[52]

The Eurocentric white person does not seek to create themselves, but instead flees from their freedom to an image of whiteness in which they have been created as an immutable essence, an essence which is the foundation of all earthly normative values. In such a refusal they fail to see that “it is necessary that we make ourselves what we are,” and that this self-creation is a “constant obligation.”[53] Humanity does not exist merely as a thing, as an in-itself with a set essence. We exist as a nothingness, as a “lack of being.”[54] Our existence is one of constant choice in how we are to continuously create ourselves. We cannot choose to not choose to create ourselves. The choice to remain unreflectively locked into an image of whiteness is a choice of how to create oneself. Thus, the image of whiteness these Eurocentric white people choose is a creative act by which they define themselves in bad faith. In that they seek to make themselves an immutable and normative essence through their image of whiteness, they seek to be an in-itself-for-itself; their fundamental project is a desire to be God.[55]

Reconstruction of the Images of African Blackness and European Whiteness: “The Look”

We have up to this point explored how the poet, for Sartre, has constructed the individualistic image of blackness and deconstructed the individualistic image of whiteness. What remains to be explored is how the poet reconstructs the relational images of blackness and whiteness. For Sartre, the poet does this through “the look.” The look is revelatory in two ways. It reveals the other-as-subject while simultaneously revealing myself-as-object. It is a reciprocal relation in which “the revelation of my being-as-object for the Other” also entails that I “must be able to apprehend the presence of his being-as-subject.”[56] While I cannot experience the world as the other does, “my apprehension of the Other in the world as probably being a man refers to my permanent possibility of being-seen-by-him.”[57] The other “is the subject who is revealed to me in that flight of myself toward objectivation.”[58]

Just as we “cannot perceive and imagine simultaneously,” “we cannot perceive the world and at the same time apprehend a look fastened upon us […] because to perceive is to look at, and to apprehend a look […] is to be conscious of being looked at.”[59]  For the Eurocentric white person to apprehend the poet’s look is to break the spell cast by the image of whiteness. Just like the voyeur peering through the keyhole, the Eurocentric white person has historically peered into the embodied experiences of the poet.[60] They have been the subject peering at the other as an object, judging the other, and enjoying the privilege of seeing without being seen. The situation of the voyeur is one in which they have been engrossed in their unreflective consciousness within their situation.[61] They cannot fully apprehend their situation and themselves because they have fled into a form of bad faith.[62] But, when someone comes upon them, sparking their reflective consciousness, drawing them into an awareness of themselves in situation, then they see themselves because somebody sees them; their gaze comes back to their own eyes.[63]

They become an object for the other.[64] They become conscious of themselves as an object to be questioned and judged by the other.[65] In recognizing they are subject to the other’s judgments, they are ashamed.[66] Their shame reveals to them that they are an object to be judged by the other and that their freedom is limited by the freedom of the other who can judge and act upon them.[67] Their possibilities are limited because “every act performed against the Other can on principle be for the other an instrument which will serve him against me.”[68] Sartre wants the Eurocentric white person to see themselves because the poet sees them. He wants them to know that they are being questioned and judged by the poet, and he wants them to feel their freedom limited by the poet’s freedom. This revelation of shame is the shock Sartre wants Eurocentric whites to feel.


If I have been successful in linking Sartre’s phenomenology and existentialism to his analysis of Négritude in Black Orpheus, then numerous questions arise. Do Sartre’s concepts have value today for social and political discussions of race, particularly critiques of whiteness? Does Sartre himself fall into the voyeuristic position of the Eurocentric white person in his analysis? If so, how does this affect his theories? Could Sartre’s concepts be useful for an ethics that takes into account race? What is the relation of Black Orpheus as understood in this way to Sartre’s later works? While I suspect that Sartre’s concepts do have relevance for social and political discussions on race, even though Sartre may fall into the voyeuristic position, obviously much more study would be required to make these arguments.

[1] Jean-Paul Sartre, “Black Orpheus,” trans. John MacCombie in The Massachusetts Review Vol. 6, No. 1 (Autumn, 1964 – Winter, 1965), pp. 13-52

[2] Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, trans. Hazel E. Barnes (New York: Washington Square Press, 1984)

[3] Jean-Paul Sartre, The Imaginary (New York: Routledge, 2004)

[4] Souleymane Bachir Diagne, “Négritude,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2016), ed. Edward N. Zalta,

[5] Ibid.

[6] Sartre, “Black Orpheus,” p. 13

[7] Ibid. p. 20; 28; 32

[8] Thomas R. Flynn, “The Role of the Image in Sartre’s Aesthetic,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 33, No. 4 (Summer, 1975), p. 432 and Jean-Paul Sartre, The Imaginary, p. 7; 20

[9] Sartre, The Imaginary, p. 9

[10] Ibid. p. 19

[11] Ibid. p. 84

[12] Ibid.

[13] Flynn, “The Role of the Image in Sartre’s Aesthetic,” p. 432; Jonathan Webber, “Philosophical Introduction,” in The Imaginary, p. xxiv

[14] Ibid. p. 434

[15] Sartre, The Imaginary, p. 21

[16] Ibid. 64

[17] Ibid. 84

[18] Ibid. 64

[19] Ibid. p. 84

[20] Sartre, “Black Orpheus,” p. 15; 18; 20-21

[21] Ibid. p. 20

[22] Ibid. p. 21

[23] Flynn, “The Role of the Image in Sartre’s Aesthetic,” p. 434

[24] Sartre, The Imaginary, p. 64; 79; 127, 132; Flynn, “The Role of the Image in Sartre’s Aesthetic,” p. 433

[25] Sartre, “Black Orpheus,” p. 21

[26] Sartre, The Imaginary, p. 69

[27] Ibid. p. 71

[28] Sartre, “Black Orpheus,” p. 19-20; 23; 29-30; 48

[29] Sartre, The Imaginary, p. 97

[30] Ibid. p. 101

[31] Sartre, The Imaginary, p. 105; Flynn pp. 436-437

[32] Sartre, “Black Orpheus,” pp. 20-21

[33] Flynn, “The Role of the Image in Sartre’s Aesthetic,” p. 437

[34] Sartre, The Imaginary, p. 125

[35] Flynn, “The Role of the Image in Sartre’s Aesthetic,” p. 438

[36] Ibid. p. 439

[37] Flynn, “The Role of the Image in Sartre’s Aesthetic,” p. 439

[38] Ibid. pp. 439-440

[39] Sartre, “Black Orpheus,” pp. 23-28

[40] Webber, p. xxv

[41] Ibid.

[42] Ibid.  xxv-xxvi

[43] Sartre, Being and Nothingness, p. 89

[44] Ibid.; Thomas R. Flynn, “L’imagination Au Pouvoir: The Evolution of Sartre’s Political and Social Thought,” Political Theory, Vol. 7, No. 2 (May 1979), p. 159

[45] Sartre, Being and Nothingness, pp. 98-99

[46] Ibid. p. 100

[47] Ibid. p. 130

[48]Ibid. p. 145

[49] Ibid. p. 150

[50] Ibid. p. 152

[51] Flynn, L’imagination Au Pouvoir: The Evolution of Sartre’s Political and Social Thought,” p. 160

[52] Sartre, p. 129

[53] Ibid. p. 101

[54] Ibid. pp. 125-126; 134

[55] Ibid. p. 735

[56] Ibid. pp. 344-345

[57] Ibid. p. 345

[58] Ibid. p. 345

[59] Ibid. p. 347

[60] Ironically, Sartre could be accused of doing this very thing in his analysis of Négritude poetry. However, Sartre does open up himself to be looked at in return.

[61] Ibid. p. 348

[62] Ibid. p. 348-349

[63] Ibid. p. 349

[64] Ibid.

[65] Ibid.

[66] Ibid. p. 350

[67] Ibid. p. 351

[68] Ibid. 354


Hope Wears Your Name Wrong: L’art neurose

Hope wears your name like a beautiful mask,

elaborately adorned, enigmatic, enticing, and deceptive.

Hope wears your name like a smile so pure that it cuts you,

and a laugh that bleeds an innocent malice.

Hope wears your name cruelly, like a betrayal,

a lie so sweet it becomes a sugar laced addiction.

Hope wears your name like an emptiness so desperate

to be filled with anything that nothing becomes something.

Hope wears your name like a spectacular failure,

an attempt so painstaking it resonates a temporal futility.

Hope wears your name like a meaninglessness,

so derealized that it even robs nihilism of its comfort.

Hope wears your name like an isolation,

a breathtakingly detached and omnipresent empathy.

Hope wears your name like a neurosis,

an obsessive passion for absurdity.

Hope wears your name wrong.

The Existential Absurdity of White Antiracist Racist Anger: Tarrying in Narcissism

Throughout his scholarly and pedagogical work, George Yancy asks white people a poignant question, namely: “how does it feel to be a white problem?”[1] Quite frankly, it pisses me off. It pisses me off to be a white problem. Injustice pisses me off. It pisses me off that I have been thrown into a social-ontology that I did not choose. It pisses me off that through this social-ontology my body is symbolic for terror. It pisses me off that this social-ontology has insidiously shaped me in ways that I cannot entirely grasp nor remedy. It pisses me off that I will unintentionally harm people because of this social-ontology. It pisses me off that in this system of oppression and exploitation, I am given privileges that I did not ask for nor want because these privileges are taken at other peoples’ expense.

It pisses me off that there is an existential absurdity in my anger, because despite my attempts to try to assert my antiracist racist self, the insidiousness of whiteness “ambushes” me and hurls me back to the recognition that the project of critical self-reflection is never ending.[2] The existential absurdity in the anger of the antiracist racist white self pisses me off. This anger acts as a way for one to “tarry,” or linger in the truth of the harms of whiteness, therefore “un-suturing,” or opening oneself “to undergo modification or complete revision.”[3] Yet, at the same time this anger also threatens to “suture” the wound opened by critical self-reflection. It threatens to close oneself off to rest on one’s laurels of being the “moral,” or “heroic,” white person; to close oneself off in a narcissism of whiteness reflecting on itself as if it could ever know and recreate itself.[4]

My anger does not seek to appropriate and usurp the experience of black rage. Black rage, bell hooks explains, is a “potentially healing response to oppression and exploitation.”[5] It is a way for “black folks to claim our emotional subjectivity.”[6] Systems of oppression and exploitation seek to “colonize” and “assimilate” people, so as to make people complicit in the acceptance of such systems.[7] Black rage is a refusal of complicity. It is a response to white “willful ignorance” and denial of responsibility for the harmful impact of these racist systems.[8] Black rage refuses a passive and powerless “victimization” that serves as the “antithesis of activism.”[9] Black rage is an existentially healing and empowering way for people to claim their subjectivity through resistance to systems of oppression and exploitation. Along with Malcolm X, hooks sees black rage as a site for self-determination and a push “towards greater and greater awareness” of justice.[10]

My anger has no right to claim for itself the experience of black people. At the same time, my anger is a response to and an abhorrence of injustice, as well as a struggle to be “self-actualized” and “self-determined.”[11] Martin Luther King, Jr. writes, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”[12] A logic of oppression[13] operates within hierarchies where privilege and disadvantage (or benefits and burdens) are disproportionately distributed based on one’s placement within the hierarchy. Within that logic, one’s place on the hierarchy is perceived as being either chosen or legitimized by “natural ability.” Thus, “justice” is interpreted as being the distribution of benefits and burdens in accordance with status hierarchy. Those higher on the hierarchy are thus perceived as being “justly” “entitled” to more benefits, while it is only “just” that those lower on the hierarchy be distributed more burdens.[14] My anger is directed toward the injustice of a system that masquerades itself as justice, thereby perpetuating the willful ignorance and denial of the “entitled,”[15] and thus is a threat to justice everywhere.

My anger is not the anger of those who Robert Jensen categorizes as “reactionary,” “conservative,” or even “liberal.”[16] My anger is not misplaced and directed toward the people who are disproportionately harmed by the “structural sin” of white privilege.[17] My anger is directed toward the sinners and the inability of the sinners to ever fully repent for their transgressions. It is the anger Jensen speaks of when he states that “more righteous anger” is needed in order to break “through the willed ignorance, the purposeful not-knowing about the racialized consequences of our social, political, and economic structures and policies” that “makes possible the comfortable lives” of the white middleclass.[18]

My anger is more in line with who Jensen categorizes as the “radical,” those white people “who are bold enough to critique it all.”[19] The critique radical whites level against ourselves is that of trying to understand racism as it has historically been and still is perpetrated socially, legally, economically, culturally, and politically at the same time that it manifests itself in everyday lived experiences.[20] It is a critique that at once engages with both the macrocosm of systemic violence and exploitation and the microcosm of how that violence and exploitation takes form in everyday social interactions and transactions. It is, moreover, an attempt at a white “double consciousness” in which white people try to, as Yancy states, “see the world differently and to see themselves differently through the experiences of black people and people of color.”[21] This is a white double consciousness in which white people “walk in the world fully conscious and try to see what is usually invisible to us.”[22] It struggles against arrogance and narcissism, yet studies one’s interaction with “the other” given the understanding, as hooks states, “that studying ‘the other’ is not the goal, the goal is learning about some aspect of who you are.”[23]

In line with hooks, for a white person to try to understand this juncture between the macro and the micro in terms of how they reinforce and perpetuate the harms of racism is to glimpse into how the white body is experienced by black people as a site of terror. In recalling growing up in the racial apartheid of the U.S. south, hooks states “I reinhabit a location where black folks associated whiteness with the terrible, the terrifying, the terrorizing. White people were regarded as terrorists, especially those who dared to enter that segregated space of blackness.”[24] Angela Davis, in a 1972 interview in the California State Prison, speaks of this terror.[25] Davis speaks of how black people feel this terror “because of the violence that exists everywhere” in U.S. society.[26] Davis describes the violence of police harassment and brutality in L.A., and the violence of growing up in Birmingham, where she could remember as a child listening to constant bombings in her neighborhood, and where her friends were killed by hate group bombings.[27] She describes how Bull Conner, Commissioner of Public Safety of Birmingham at the time, would instigate the violence by saying on the radio that black people who would move “into the neighborhood better expect some bloodshed.”[28]

This terror is imprinted into whiteness as a property of the white body. Moreover, there is no distinction between the “innocent” white body and the “terrorizing” white body, because “As a child, I did not know how to tell them apart, how to ask the ‘real white people to please stand up.’”[29] A history of systemic violence and exploitation is imprinted in the black experience of encountering the white body. From hooks and Davis, a white person can glimpse how the individual black embodied experience is one in which the history of a people’s disproportionate amount of traumatic suffering, sanctioned and perpetrated by the state, along with the individual black person’s unique everyday lived experiences with racism all coalesce into the perception of terror in the encounter with an individual white body.[30] The individual white body is not experienced as a neutral norm in this encounter. It is a symbol of terror.

The radical white critique recognizes that this perception of terror is not a misperception or exaggeration caused by black people clinging to a distant past. This perception of terror is based on a historical accumulation of racist mannerisms and ideologies that have persisted over time to become imbued within white social-ontology. hooks describes her experience at a conference where liberal, progressive, whites unintentionally and unwittingly created a space reflective of hierarchical white supremacy.[31] Yancy’s work makes this point clearly, namely, that the socio-ontological construction of whiteness is imbued with racism to such an extent that as white people today, in our everyday lives and despite ourselves, exude racism in our mannerisms, interactions with others, and in constructing our social spaces.[32]

Contrary to the white neo-liberal illusion of white subjectivity conceived of as an abstraction from embodied social conditions, as an autonomous self-creating identity, Yancy explains that “the embedded white racist self” is deeply intertwined in “a heteronomous web of white practices to which they as whites, are linked both as its beneficiaries and as co-contributors to its continual function.”[33] Whiteness “confers” on me privileges that make my life safer and easier, as well as reflects white peoples’, my, experiences as the norm.[34] I am in no position to refuse these benefits. I can try to refuse, but I am doing so within a system in which whiteness has already structured my identity and society. There is no stepping outside of the system to some structureless origination point where these benefits can be refused. Racism is a system in which I am a member who privileges, and who contributes to the system in receiving these privileges. Individual intention does not absolve one from being racist in such a system. Therefore, I am racist. In that I do not agree with the legitimacy of this system, I am an antiracist racist. In line with Jensen, my anger is not guilt in the sense of being responsible for the entire system of white supremacy throughout history.[35] However, my anger is guilt in the sense of being responsible for the ways in which I perpetuate white supremacy and racism through my everyday actions as well as by failing to do all I can to change such a system.[36]

Whiteness is embedded in my very constitution, to such an extent that the depths of my racism very well may remain obstinately hidden from me. hooks notes how she attended a colleague’s lecture at a conference and discovered that much of what the white colleague, who hooks describes as a “comrade in struggle,” spoke of seemed to be informed by hooks’s own work, yet hooks was not cited.[37] hooks states “within a racist context, well, White people are accustomed to taking the labor of Black people for granted.”[38] Yancy offers another example of a white antiracist activist who, when seeing two black pilots as he boarded a plane, questioned to himself whether the pilots could fly the plane.[39] Jensen speaks of his own experience in which he had to take responsibility for “dealing with [his] internalized sense of superiority” that he felt when he participated in a panel discussion with Les Payne, a highly regarded multiple-award winning black journalist.[40] These examples demonstrate that despite being a radical white who engages critically with whiteness and racism, the racist social conditioning is still operative. There is no “innocent” white body.

Yancy explains this as “the opaque white racist self.”[41] In so far as “whiteness is a profound site of concealment,” no matter how I may try to get to the depths of my racism, there may be other opaque and hidden forms of racism embedded in my unreflective psyche that emerge in “responses, reactions, good intentions, postural gestures, and denials.”[42] At such times, racism manifests itself as an “ambush” and reveals that underneath the radical self-critique and without one’s knowledge, “whiteness as the transcendental norm never stopped happening; it had already installed an opaque white racist self.”[43] Any attempt at self-knowledge, to “stand outside” myself, and any desire to “flee white power and privilege” already occurs from the foundation of a “white self whose desire may constitute a function of that very white power, privilege, and narcissism ab initio.[44] The desire to “rehabilitate” myself does so “within the context of complex and formative white racist social and institutional material and intrapsychic forces.”[45] My anger is founded upon an opaque white racist self. Whiteness is a fact of my existence, one that I did not choose, do not want, and cannot ever fully remedy because I cannot ever get to the foundation of it.

On the one hand, this anger is a site of “un-suturing.” “Suturing” is a both a process of closure as a way of protecting the white self “from counter-white axiological and embodied iterations, epistemic fissure, and white normative disruption” as well as an illusion of “the white self as a site of self-possession and in control of its own meaning, where such meaning is taken to be grounded within a larger white narrative history underwritten by a natural/metaphysical teleology.”[46] The white self closes itself off in order to protect itself from challenges to its self-narrative of being the autonomous and self-creating bearer of standards, norms, and values. Un-suturing, conversely, “is a deeply embodied phenomenon that enables whites to come to terms with the realization that their embodied existence and embodied identities are always already inextricably linked to a larger white racist social integument or skin which envelops who and what they are.”[47]

Un-suturing is opening oneself up to be existentially vulnerable. There is no deeper teleological meaning, no standard for all values and norms, nor any objectivity and autonomy in whiteness. The white self is not a valueless norm that creates itself ex nihilo. One is thrown into whiteness, and can choose to be sutured, to close themselves off, and protect themselves. Or, one can choose to embrace the absurdity; embrace the meaninglessness and lack of foundation behind the open gaping wound of whiteness. One can choose to embrace an un-suturing that opens one up to “tarry,” or “dwell in spaces that make them deeply uncomfortable, to stay with the multiple forms of agony that black people endure from them.”[48] To tarry is to remain in the present moment so that one can “attempt to understand the ways in which they perpetuate racism, and to begin to think about the incredible difficulty involved in undoing it.”[49] In this existential anger, in being pissed off at being thrown into a whiteness and all that is entailed in this, one opens oneself up to the realization of the macro and micro forms of racism in their lives, as well as makes oneself vulnerable to being challenged about how they themselves reinforce and perpetuate racism.

Yet, on the other hand this anger can serve to suture the white self. Jensen speaks of the white “resistance hero” with privilege who “reject[s] the system that produces the privilege,” and who rejects their own hero status in challenging white supremacy.[50] By resting on one’s laurels as the anti-hero, antiracist racist white person who “gets it” and uses their anger to challenge white supremacy, the white self can close itself off to the possibility of being ambushed by their opaque white racist self. By closing oneself off to the ambush, one closes themselves off from the possibility of being sutured, tarrying in that un-sutured moment, and ultimately continuing the ongoing process of critical self-reflection. This closure comes from the narcissism of whiteness examining itself as if it is the narrative origin of the story.

hooks argues that white people have to do the work of changing the internalized racist and white supremacist ideologies we harbor, because relying on black people to do that work by constantly challenging us is to fall back into racist social patterns.[51] But, it would be a mistake to think that white people can do this work isolated from black peoples’ experiences of racism and white supremacy.[52] White people have to do the work of tarrying in the un-sutured moment in order to change our internalized racism, and anger is a way to do this work. However, anger could also be detrimental to this work.

My anger is both a site for the possibility of being sutured and un-sutured, and, in this way, the existential absurdity of being thrown into whiteness is embedded in my anger itself. The open gaping wound of whiteness is a site for an un-suturing anger. Such anger, in constantly seeking meaning and foundation, seeks to suture the wound in order to escape the vulnerability of meaninglessness and foundationlessness.

There is no deeper teleological meaning to my anger. It is not a site of autonomous self-creation. It is rather a site of constant choice, and my facticity as a white person deeply influences those choices. In my anger, I can choose to learn from black peoples’ experiences of racism and white supremacy. In engaging with such experiences, and the subsequent anger, I am un-sutured. Yet, at the same time, my anger can suture me by throwing me back into the narcissism of whiteness reflecting upon itself as if it can ever fully grasp or remedy itself – as if it could ever really know and recreate itself.

Exploring antiracist racist white anger puts me precariously on the edge of hunkering down in a narcissistic analysis of my own anger, because ultimately, even in seeking out black experiences of racism and white supremacy, my anger threatens to become closed-off in order to find meaning in an ontological white identity as the anti-hero. The ongoing process of white self-criticality requires vigilance and this vigilance requires embracing the absurdity of my anger. It requires embracing the fact that I always exist precariously teetering on the edge of a white narcissism that is meaningless and foundationless. The project, then, is one of not living in bad faith in regard to my whiteness; not allowing myself to seek refuge from my responsibility by falling into the role of the anti-hero or through willful ignorance.

Being white is a part of my facticity. I cannot do anything about being born white into a historically white supremacist, Eurocentric, world. My anger, as site of constant choice, is a potential site of suturing and un-suturing. Within the existential absurdity embedded into my antiracist racist white anger, I cannot hope to transcend my whiteness as such. I can make it my project to transcend my whiteness in the sense of not living in bad faith with my whiteness. In this sense, my whiteness can be critiqued and challenged, but it cannot be erased through a return to a structureless origination point. And, this pisses me off. Yet, in the midst of such anger the phrase “Look, a white!”[53] intercedes into my engagement with this absurdity, calling me out, and causing me to pause once again to tarry in the narcissism of this present moment.

[1] George Yancy, Look, a White! Philosophical Essays on Whiteness (Lanham: Temple University Press, 2012) p. 174, and

George Yancy, White Self-Criticality Beyond Anti-racism (Philadelphia: Lexington Books, 2015) p. xii.

[2] Yancy, White Self-Criticality, p. xiii

[3] Ibid., pp. xv-xvi

[4] Yancy, White Self-Criticality, ibid. Robert Jensen, “‘You’re the Nigger, Baby, It Isn’t Me’ The Willed Ignorance and Wishful Innocence of White America,” in White Self-Criticality Beyond Anti-racism, ed. George Yancy (Philadelphia: Lexington Books, 2015) pp. 90-94

[5] bell hooks, Killing Rage (New York City: Henry Holt and Company, 1995), p. 12

[6] Ibid. p. 16

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid. p. 17

[9] Ibid. p. 18

[10] Ibid. pp. 18-19

[11] Ibid. pp. 19-20

[12] Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Why We Can’t Wait (1963),

[13] My use of the term “logic of oppression” is taken largely from Karen J. Warren’s concept of the “logic of domination.” See Karen J. Warren, “Feminist Environmental Philosophy,” in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2015), ed. Edward N. Zalta,

[14] Cf. hooks, Killing Rage, pp. 21-30

[15] I conceive of this as “white entitlement” in that white people, as being socially, politically, and ideologically placed at the top of the hierarchy, conceive of the privileges they receive as being what they are entitled to. The concept of “white entitlement,” as I conceive of it, claims that there is largely a failure to see that these privileges are the result of systems of oppression and exploitation, and not something that white people have earned. Thus, white people operate under a denial and willful ignorance of where their privileges come from and react defensively and violently when the “entitlements” they have received are critiqued or are “taken away.”

[16] Jensen, pp. 89-90

[17] Yancy, Look, a White!, p. 143

[18] Robert Jensen, The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism, and White Privilege (San Francisco: City Lights, 2005), p. 58; 64

[19] Ibid. p. 90

[20] Cf. Jensen, The Heart of Whiteness, pp. 27-44

[21] Ibid., p. 12.

[22] Jensen, The Heart of Whiteness, p. 93

[23] bell hooks and Cornel West, Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life (Boston, South End Press: 1991) p. 33

[24] hooks, Killing Rage, p. 39

[25] Angela Davis, The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, film. Directed by Göran Hugo Olsson. New York City: Sundance Selects, 2011

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] hooks, Killing Rage, p. 39

[30] See hooks, Killing Rage, particularly, pp. 40-41; 48

[31] Ibid. p. 48

[32] Yancy, Look, a White!, p. 169

[33] Ibid., p. 164

[34] Peggy McIntosh, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” Independent School, Vol. 49, No. 2 (Winter 1990), pp. 31-35

[35] Jensen, The Heart of Whiteness, p. 47

[36] Ibid.

[37] hooks and West, Breaking Bread, p.37

[38] Ibid.

[39] Yancy, Look, a White!, pp. 169-70

[40] Jensen, The Heart of Whiteness, pp. 67-70

[41] Ibid., p. 168

[42] Ibid., p. 169

[43] Ibid., p. 170

[44] Ibid., p. 173

[45] Ibid.

[46] Yancy, White Self-Criticality, p. xv

[47] Ibid., p. xvii

[48] Yancy, Look, a White!, p. 157

[49] Ibid., p. 158

[50] Jensen, Willed Ignorance and Wishful Innocence, pp. 91-92

[51] hooks, Killing Rage, pp. 193-94

[52] Ibid., p. 193

[53] See Yancy, Look, a White!, pp. 1-16

Benjamin’s Revolutionary Historical Materialism in Philosophy


Walter Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History” weaves together the social and political theory of historical materialism with linguistic, spatial, and embodied conceptions of the image, and metaphysical conceptions of time.[1] Benjamin uses these concepts to provide a critique of historicism (the idea of historical progress) by drawing out the structural and ideological consequences for social and political material conditions.  Ultimately, Benjamin argues for a conception of messianic philosophy rooted in historical materialism as a counterforce to the idea of historical progress.

This paper is devoted to an exegesis of Benjamin’s “Theses” which attempts to argue for a particular understanding of these various concepts. I begin by exploring the image as a form of communication that incorporates a spatial axis into the act of remembrance.  Next, I examine how the act of remembrance draws upon both the temporal and spatial axes and as such is a messianic, redemptive, and revolutionary act that fosters a critique of the structural and ideological functions of historicism. Following an examination of the role of the future in historical materialism, I explore the concept of constellations as composed simultaneously of the act of thinking in conjunction with spatial and temporal axes. It is from the jolts and halts within thinking, space, and time that an opening emerges for revolutionary acts. Philosophy for Benjamin must be historical materialist, thus it is a revolutionary act. I conclude with some brief remarks about the implications of my reading of Benjamin’s “Theses” as it relates to Jürgen Habermas’s argument for the necessity of a universal discourse founding deliberative democracy. Ultimately, my project is to offer a Habermasian inspired translation of Benjamin’s “Theses.”

Spatial Image and the Act of Remembrance: Fragment V

Benjamin evokes spatial imagery to describe historical materialism as incorporating both temporal and spatial axes. Historicism operates primarily along the temporal axis as a linear series of events only marginally connected to a spatial place. Once a specific historical time has passed, the specific place of that time has passed as well. Paris circa June 1944 is no longer fundamentally operative in Paris circa November 2016. It is a place and time progressed beyond. The spatial axis in historicism is a sort of parasitic residue of the temporal axis.

However, in historical materialism the spatial axis comes to the fore from the periphery with at least as much import as the temporal axis. The spatial axis comes to the fore through the remembrance of the historical image. One can recall facts and data by merely recounting dates in a sequential order, but one cannot imagine without imagining a place in space. Remembrance of the historical image serves as a form of symbolic communication. The image, despite being devoid of linguistic syntax, is a form of communication; it is language. The image of the past is the past speaking to the present moment. To imagine, through remembrance, a historical event along both the spatial and temporal axes communicates much more than a linear series of factual events.

Reflecting on history as a linear series of factual events drowns out any particular event in the series and makes all events equally ephemeral. The image, on the contrary, breaks through space and time to shatter the now with an effervescent poignancy. It draws the past into the now.[2] It connects the past with the present in such a way that allows the present to recognize itself in the past. Instead of the past being a distant point we have progressed beyond, the past as an image remembered and subsumed in the here and now, communicates that the material social and political conditions of the past are still operative within the present.

Revolutionary Messianic Redemption of the Past: Fragments II, IV, VI, and VII

Quite simply, for Benjamin, the messiah is a redeemer of the past. Historicism threatens to write the past as a linear series of events progressing toward those in power, thereby justifying the reign of the rulers. Conceiving of the past as a progression entails tacitly and implicitly justifying each event in the causal chain as a necessary link toward progress. To redeem the past is to deny that the injustices and oppressions of the past along with the reign of past and present rulers are implicitly justified as causal necessities for progress. The messiah is the redeemer who shatters the present by invoking images of the past so as to “constantly call in question every victory, past and present, of the rulers.”[3]

More specifically, it is the image of the past that is remembered in moments of danger that serves a revolutionary function. One is not a detached observer in moments of danger. In the moment of danger one is fully consumed by the social and political material conditions in which they exist. The historical image connects this embodied experience of being consumed in the moment of danger to a particular place.

Redemption occurs through an act of remembrance that seeks to transform both the past and the present by challenging the root material conditions that dialectically re-instantiate and reconfigure injustice and oppression into ever more mutated versions. Redemption in this sense is a revolutionary and radical act that seeks to stop time and space in order to critically challenge a moment of injustice and oppression in the past. Such a halt allows for a radical transformation of how that moment is historically understood as well as how it remains operative in the present. In this sense, one challenges the “danger [that] affects both the content of the tradition and its receivers,” namely the threat “of becoming a tool of the ruling classes,” so that peoples here and now, and “even the dead,” will not become tools of the ruling classes to justify and perpetuate ever more mutated versions of injustice and oppression.[4]

Moreover, to empathize with the past, the historical materialist finds the present as operative in the past. The two eras of time are not isolated and distinct, but instead the material conditions of each are, through a dialectical transposition, operative in each other in various degrees and forms. The material conditions of the present are subsumed within the past, just as the material conditions of the past are subsumed in the present. Such conditions may be transformed, certain aspects are pronounced while others are subdued, but the conditions are still contained within the entire social and political system.

Historicism neglects to empathize with the past because it fails to understand the interrelation between the past and the present. Historicism empathizes instead with the victor whose legacy of historical barbarism is transmitted to the present rulers. The spoils of history, i.e. the “cultural treasures,” go to the victor and are inherited by present rulers.[5] Benjamin argues it is a historical inheritance tainted and distorted by a barbarism that at first seizes and then subsequently retains the power of a historical discourse that empathizes with the victors. For example, the history of the indigenous peoples of the present United States of America has been largely forgotten and is remembered only as a step in the progression of the U.S. nation-state. This selective reclamation of history for the sake of maintaining power is what Benjamin speaks of when he says: “Whoever has emerged victorious participates to this day in the triumphal procession in which the present rulers step over those who are lying prostrate.”[6] The historical materialist must “brush history against the grain” in order to remember and redeem the history that has been lost to historical progression.[7]

I see two interconnected ways of understanding Benjamin’s critique of historicism. One way argues that historical progress conceives of itself as “progressing” from prior events. Such events are structurally unjust and oppressive and will become dialectically re-instantiated and reconfigured of their own accord in such ways as to perpetuate structural injustice and oppression if the process of progression goes unchecked. For example, if a nation-state’s constitution is written so as to give life the same legal worth as property, thereby making property and life legally interchangeable, then the nation-state has adopted a specific structural point. The nation-state will consider itself as “progressing” by socially, politically, and legally building upon this structural point. All material conditions will thus “progress” from this point within this social and political structure and this point will become ever more entrenched into the structure.

The second way argues that historical progress is always ascertained from the point of view of those in power, which perpetuates and justifies injustice and oppression by calling injustice and oppression progress toward the goals of the powerful. Alternate histories that would challenge the dominant conception of progress by calling out the injustice and oppression would be forgotten. Recall here the example provided above regarding indigenous peoples in the U.S.

Both views are historical materialist in that both maintain that the material conditions of the past and present are operative in each other. However, the former view is solely concerned with the perpetuation of structural injustice and oppression within the material conditions under historicism, while the latter view recognizes that historicism utilizes ideology to justify and perpetuate injustice and oppression in the material conditions. I am reading Benjamin as asserting that these two views work concomitantly with each other.

The Future: Fragments IX, XII, and XVIII-B

Historicism imagines the future as a continuous progression, whereas Benjamin’s historical materialism does not seek out an image of the future. In reference to Klee’s “Angelus Novus,” Benjamin interprets the “angel of history” as turned toward the past, seeing “one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage” and being propelled by the storm of progress into the future “while the pile of debris before him grows skyward.”[8] The angel is in the present facing the past with their back to the future. Historicism’s idea of progress violently forces the angel into the future historicism creates. History is concerned with the past and the resulting wreckage that conceiving of the past as a linear series of factual events along a path of progress culminates into. The primary concern for history is with the redemption of the past, not looking toward the future.

The conception of history as a movement of progress in conjunction with assigning “to the working class the role of the redeemer of future generations” is also problematic.[9] The misconception of the working class as being redeemed in the future through the path of progress ideologically distorts the working class’s material conditions and serves to placate and pacify the working class. Such an ideology “made the working class forget both its hatred and its spirit of sacrifice, for both are nourished by the image of enslaved ancestors rather than that of liberated grandchildren.”[10]

While “the Jews were prohibited from investigating the future,” the Jewish faith strongly encourages remembrance.[11] The restriction on divining the future “does not imply, however, that for the Jews the future turned into homogeneous, empty time. For every second of time was the strait gate through which the Messiah might enter.”[12] History should not concern itself with divining the future, and to do so is to turn away from the catastrophe of the past that is still operative in the present. However, the future is necessarily filled with the past and present. This is not to say that the future is determined, contrary to the ideology of historicism which implicitly entails a sort of determinism. To say that the future is filled with the past and present is to say that just as events of the past are operative in the present, events of the past and present will be operative in the future. The future does not emerge out of nothing nor is it predetermined along a path of progression. Revolutionary action in the present through the redemption of the past can always affect the future.

The Concept of Time, Constellations, and Philosophy as a Revolutionary Act: Fragments XIII, XIV, XV, and XVII

Historicism necessarily requires that events must be undeterred or unencumbered in their progression. Historicism must then implicitly understand time as metaphysically empty, as an empty uniform container that becomes filled with historical facts and data.[13] Benjamin’s argument is centered on a different conception of time, namely, messianic time. Messianic time is time “shot through with chips” of past, present, and future.[14] In messianic time, time is understood as “filled by the presence of now.”[15] To leap into the past through the act of remembrance always takes place within the material conditions where the victor has dominated the historical discourse. To take such a leap through an understanding of the dialectical transposition of the present and the past is a revolutionary act that seeks to redeem the history of the past by exploding the continuum of history. Exploding the continuum of history through revolutionary action means to stop time at a point where past and present within a specific space (i.e. along both the spatial and temporal axes) come together into a nexus (my word). Such a nexus is the “historical time-lapse camera” that freezes moments of the past into the present as “monuments of a historical consciousness.”[16]

Benjamin states: “A historical materialist cannot do without the notion of a present which is not a transition, but in which time stands still and has come to a stop. For this notion defines the present in which he himself is writing history. Historicism gives the ‘eternal’ image of the past; historical materialism supplies a unique experience with the past.”[17] Benjamin is saying something much more significant than that one anachronistically reads and writes the present into the past. When it is asserted that the present and past are operative in each other, what is being said is that time is not a seamless transition from one event to another, where events flow into each other and each event then moves to a timeless past. Time, analogous to the act of thinking in this fragment, is instead a series of flows interrupted by abrupt jolts and halts. These abrupt jolts and halts caused by tensions in material conditions give the historical era “a shock, by which it crystallizes into a monad.”[18] When thinking, time, and space crystallize the constellation (or, “configuration”) into a monad or nexus, there is a “revolutionary chance in the fight for the oppressed past.”[19]

I am reading Benjamin as stating (1) that the act of thinking for humans is necessarily of time and space, (2) that thinking is to monad as time and space are to nexus, and (3) all simultaneously configure the constellation where events along the spatial and temporal axes hang together. Regarding the first point, thinking, at least for finite mortal beings, always and can only occur within space and time. Regarding the second and third points, a constellation is a location stopped along the spatial axis at various moments of the temporal axis. For example, Berlin in 1923, 1945, 1961, 1989, and 2016 may constitute this constellation. In constellations, events hang together in both space and time; hanging together based on where the stops occur along the different axes. Past and present are operative in each other along these temporal and spatial axes such that specific places and times become imbued with specific material conditions, conditions which are both “cancelled” and “preserved” within the constellation.[20]

Moreover, to think is to philosophize. I understand Benjamin as asserting that historicism and historical materialism are different ways of thinking, and thus of philosophizing. Historicism is a way of thinking that conceives of thought as a flowing and uninterrupted process of progress, negligent in critically examining the thoughts of the past. A process of thinking dictated by the idea of progress is a catastrophe that simply piles wreckage upon the heap and justifies and perpetuates the barbarism of injustice and oppression. Historical materialism, on the contrary, is a way of thinking constantly looking back and critiquing the thoughts of the past.

The sense of embodied danger within the material conditions jolts and halts thinking, time, and space. When thinking crystallizes into a monad (along with time and space crystallizing into a nexus), then a radical change in the material conditions that justify and perpetuate injustice and oppression is possible. The monad and nexus are focal points where thinking, space, and time stop. Such focal points are where the dialectical re-instantiation and reconfiguration of material conditions takes place. Consider again the example above regarding the Berlin constellation across the temporal axis. In that example, Berlin 1923 would be one monad or nexus within the constellation. Thus, these focal points are the places where the historical materialist must practice remembrance. Thinking must be jolted and halted in order to turn back, remember, and redeem the past. Philosophy must be historical materialist. Philosophy, in this sense, is a revolutionary messianic act.

Conclusion: A Habermasian Translation

I have argued for a particular understanding of Benjamin’s “Theses” which incorporates concepts of social and political thought with linguistics, the spatiality of the image, embodied experience, and time in order to understand Benjamin’s argument for a messianic philosophy of history.  Benjamin’s work has been criticized for its reliance on and incorporation of Jewish mysticism.[21] If Benjamin’s work is indeed of an essentially religious nature, then what place does it have in a world where religious plurality requires political secularism? Must Benjamin’s work be relegated to and remain strictly within the private sphere, with no bearing on public discourse?

Habermas’s theory of deliberative democracy argues for the necessity of a universal language for political discourse. Habermas argues that “all citizens should be free to decide whether they want to use religious language in the public sphere.”[22] However, “they would,” states Habermas, “have to accept that the potential truth contents of religious utterances must be translated into a generally accessible language before” such utterances can be discussed in the official (legal and political) public sphere.[23] Habermas’s concern is not solely directed at religious discourse but to all discourses that have become specialized. Discourse specialization, for Habermas, has resulted in a society separated by disparate and autonomous discourses that cannot understand, communicate, nor work with each other.[24] While each language offers insight into the lifeworld, the specialization of discourses is not conducive to a universal political system capable of sufficiently legitimizing decision making within the public sphere.  A universal language that brings together these disparate languages is an unfinished project of modernity and would create the functional foundation for deliberative democracy.[25]

So, for Habermas, it would seem that Benjamin’s work would need to be relegated to the private realm if it is unable to be translated into a discourse that separates it from its religious and mystical underpinnings. My reading of Benjamin has been an attempt to bring the “Theses” in line with Habermas’s criteria. If the messiah is understood as a redeemer of the past through a philosophical critique of how the material conditions are dialectically transposed in the past and present, if the image is linguistic, spatial and embodied, and if time is metaphysically understood as that which is always filled with other eras of time, then it would seem that Benjamin’s work is translatable to a secular discourse. All of these claims can be coherently synthesized into a secular social and political argument. Several questions arise for future discussion. Are there necessary elements for Benjamin’s argument that have been lost when such a translation occurs, and are those elements necessarily religious? Does Benjamin’s argument entail religious embodiment, as in experiencing the world necessarily through an embodied religious worldview? Has something important in the embodied experience of Benjamin’s argument been lost in this attempt to translate his argument? While these are important questions, my project has been an attempt at synthesis and as these questions are projects for analysis, they are best left for a future discussion.

[1] Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York City: Schocken Books, 2007), pp. 253-267

[2] p. 255

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] p. 256

[6] Ibid.

[7] p. 257

[8] pp. 257-58

[9] p. 260

[10] Ibid.

[11] p. 264

[12] Ibid.

[13] p. 261

[14] p. 263

[15] p. 261

[16] pp. 261-62

[17] p. 262

[18] pp. 262-63

[19] p. 263

[20] Ibid.

[21] Peter Osborne and Matthew Charles, “Walter Benjamin,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2015), ed. Edward N. Zalta,

[22] Jürgen Habermas, “‘The Political’,” in The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere, ed. Eduardo Mendieta and Jonathan Vanantwerpen (West Sussex: Columbia University Press, 2011), p. 25

[23] pp. 25 – 26

[24] James Bohman and William Rehg, “Jürgen Habermas,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2014), ed. Edward N. Zalta,

[25] Ibid; See also: Jürgen Habermas, “Modernity: An Unfinished Project,” in Habermas and the Unfinished Project of Modernity: Critical Essays on The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, ed. Maurizio Passerin d’Entrèves and Seyla Benhabib (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997), pp. 38-55

Butler’s Cohabitation and Benjamin’s Messianic Time

Judith Butler approaches the issue of religion and the public sphere by exploring the question: “Is Judaism Zionism?”[1] Butler addresses the issue of whether criticism of Israeli state violence against Palestinians is anti-Semitic. Butler relies heavily on Walter Benjamin’s work as well as the work of theorists inspired by Benjamin. For this paper, I reformulate Butler’s argument by focusing on Benjamin’s concept of messianic time, which subsequently touches on his concepts of constellations, remembrance, and redemption.

Butler first dispels secularization’s dichotomy between the private and public spheres. Butler asserts that questions regarding secularization must first recognize whether a dominant religion is already subsumed within the public sphere. If a dominant religion is already subsumed in the public sphere, then the public sphere is already constituted by criteria instituted by the dominant religion.[2] The public sphere, then, is already understood from a certain framework of religious criteria.[3] Attempts to try to delineate and demarcate religious belief from nonreligious belief fail to recognize that religion is a social ontology that is embedded into the constitution of the individual as a cognizant social being and implicitly shapes the public sphere; that “religion often functions as a matrix of subject formation, an embedded framework for valuations, and a mode of belonging and embodied social practice.”[4]

Butler then explores how criticism of Israeli state violence may be seen as an ethical obligation founded in religious and nonreligious Judaism.[5] “Jewishness,” states Butler, “is itself an anti-identitarian project” in that it could be asserted that “being a Jew implies taking up an ethical relation to the non-Jew.”[6] Public criticism of Israeli state violence that “draws upon cohabitation as a norm of sociality” would then “affirm the displacement of identity that Jewishness is.”[7]

In order to understand the normative obligations of cohabitation, Butler draws on Hannah Arendt and Edward Said’s theories of diaspora within the Jewish and Palestinian traditions.[8] Both traditions “have an overlapping history of displacement, exile, living as refugees in diaspora, among those who are not the same” and as such both have “a mode of living in which alterity is constitutive of who one is.”[9] Individuals in both traditions are shaped by otherness. Such an otherness based on “displacement and heterogeneous cohabitation” is an ethical foundation and “historical resource” from which “a just polity” might be conceived.[10] While strict analogies between distinct exiles are methods which perpetuate injustice by ignoring the contexts in which subjugation occurs, there are nonetheless “principles of social justice” which can be derived from these distinct contexts of subjugation that can be of normatively informative.[11]

The normative obligations of cohabitation are directly related to theories of diaspora through action. Butler explains, for Arendt, an important legacy within Jewish mysticism “is the notion that humans participate in the powers that shape the ‘drama of the world’.”[12] Action in this sense, asserts Butler, depends on the notion of diaspora in the Jewish tradition.[13] There is a scattering, an “emanation” of individuals during diaspora; a dispersal of “fallen sparks” or the “scattered light, of the sephirot” in the kabbalistic tradition that speaks to the Jewish diaspora.[14] Butler reads Arendt, through Isaac Luria’s call to “uplift the fallen sparks from all their various locations,” as revalorizing the cohabitation of Jews and non-Jews implied in diaspora.[15]

Butler ties these concepts of diaspora and action to Arendt’s views on Benjamin’s messianism in which “it was the suffering of the oppressed that flashed up during moments of emergency and that interrupted both homogeneous and teleological time.”[16] To interject, Benjamin’s messianic time is one in which the historical context of oppression and its subsequent dispossession becomes recognized only through a juncture of the past, present, and future in the act of remembrance. The act of remembrance is a perspective of the present which entails an understanding of the present in order to understand the past, as well as entails projecting that understanding into the future. Butler asserts that exile provides a framework of transposition by which one distinct form of dispossession can be understood in light of another.[17] Redemption is then a way to affirm diaspora; it “is to be rethought as the exilic, without return, a disruption of teleological history and an opening to a convergent and interruptive set of temporalities.”[18] Such an opening does not aim at truth of fact or a return to the past, but instead aims at a revelation, a revealing, of fragments of the past that fractures, reconstitutes, and redeems the present moment.[19] “The Messiah,” states Butler, “is a memory of the suffering from another time that interrupts and reorients the politics of this time.”[20] Butler recalls the sephirot as the “illuminations” that fracture the lightlessness of the teleological continuity and “amnesia” of the present,[21] which is indicative of Benjamin’s conception of “historical constellations.” The fracturing of the present opens and transposes the suffering of the oppressed “into the future of justice.”[22]

There is both a spatial and temporal dimension to Butler’s conception of diaspora that allows for an ethical principle of cohabitation by which moral claims regarding Israeli state violence can be understood. In that Jewish identity is in a sense ontologically bound with non-Jewish identity, one cannot only not choose with whom to inhabit the earth, but one is also obligated to actively preserve the lives of others and promote pluralization.[23] Pluralization is not universalization in the sense of secular homogenization, but in the sense that pluralization is a commitment to universal equality, and universal “equality is a commitment to the process of differentiation itself.”[24] The universal right of cohabitation entails the pluralization of traditions, each of which is both internally and externally differentiated.[25] The transposition of suffering that is to enable justice in the future cannot be understood as a universalization of suffering by which each tradition’s suffering is analogous to the other’s because the specificities of each suffering makes such analogies impossible.[26] Pluralization is not division, but is differentiation. Differentiation accounts for the specificities of each tradition’s suffering under the universal norm of equal consideration of suffering, whereas division would deny that a tradition’s suffering is worthy of equal consideration.[27] The universal equality of suffering and the pluralized process of differentiation of that suffering from within a diasporic, messianic, framework of cohabitation is the Benjaminian inspired ethical principle from which Butler argues Israeli state violence can and must be criticized without being considered as anti-Semitic.

I will conclude with a question as it relates to Habermas’s essay in the same text.[28] Habermas argues that “all citizens should be free to decide whether they want to use religious language in the public sphere.”[29] However, “they would,” states Habermas, “have to accept that the potential truth contents of religious utterances must be translated into a generally accessible language before” such utterances can be discussed in the official public sphere.[30] Butler seems to object to this position because the generally accessible language of the public sphere is already constituted through a dominant religion. Instead of secularization, Butler proposes pluralization. Is secularization ultimately necessary for deliberative democracy? Could a pluralization of discourses, within the official public sphere, be incorporated into a theory of deliberative democracy?

[1] Judith Butler, “Is Judaism Zionism?” in The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere, ed. Eduardo Mendieta and Jonathan Vanantwerpen (West Sussex: Columbia University Press, 2011), pp. 70 – 91.

[2] p. 71

[3] p. 72

[4] Ibid.

[5] p. 73

[6] p. 74

[7] Ibid.

[8] pp. 76 – 77

[9] p. 77

[10] Ibid.

[11] p. 79

[12] p. 80

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] p. 81

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] p. 82

[20] p. 83

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] p. 84

[24] p. 85

[25] pp. 86 – 87

[26] Ibid.

[27] p. 88

[28] Jürgen Habermas, “‘The Political’,” in The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere, ed. Eduardo Mendieta and Jonathan Vanantwerpen (West Sussex: Columbia University Press, 2011), pp. 15 – 33.

[29] p. 25

[30] pp. 25 – 26

Sartre – To Do, To Have, To Be: The Desire to Make Oneself God, Being and Nothingness, “II. ‘Doing and Having’: Possession” (pp. 734 – 765)

After discussing the similarities and differences between traditional psychoanalysis and existential psychoanalysis, as well offering a brief sketch of the basic principles and methods of existential psychoanalysis, Sartre explores the relation between ontology and existential psychoanalysis. To begin, Sartre establishes that the behaviors revealed through an ontological study of desire “must serve as the basic principles of existential psychoanalysis” because such “concrete desires have structures” which express “all human reality” (734 – 735). “Desire” asserts Sartre, “is a lack of being” and is “directly supported by the being of which it is a lack,” namely, the in-itself-for-itself, i.e. “cause of itself” (735). Human reality is “a lived relation” between two limiting terms, namely the In-itself as fixed contingency and facticity and the “In-itself-for-itself or value” (ibid.). Humans, in our existences, are a double nihilation, we are what we are not and are not what we are, and as such we nihilate the contingency of the In-itself as a flight toward the “In-itself as self-cause” (ibid.). We lack a substratum, an essence, from which this flight originates, all the while we endeavor to be this self-generating in-itself-for-itself (i.e. God). “Desire,” states Sartre, “expresses this endeavor” (ibid.).

Desire is also defined by a relation “to a brute, concrete existent which we commonly call the object of the desire” (ibid.). The relation to an object of desire is that of possession or appropriation. Desire manifests itself through action in order to possess and/or to be. Thus, human concrete existence is composed of three categories, namely “to do, to have, to be” (736). For the rest of this paper, I will attempt to reformulate the main points of Sartre’s argument in which all three of these categories become subsumed under “to be” and “to be” is equivalent with the project to be God. It is here, in these concrete human relations to objects and attributes of objects, both of which have objective ontological meanings, that Sartre argues existential psychoanalysis must focus in order to gain understanding of each individual human’s project to be God.

Starting in Sartre’s ontological analysis of the three categories, “to do” is clearly aligned with “to be” in that one performs an act in order to be the concrete characterization of that act. For example, one trains in order “to be” a scientist (736). But moreover, “to do” is immediately reducible to “to have” in that in any action one seeks to appropriate or possess something through the act (736 – 737). In the act of creation, one at once seeks to bring an entity into existence through their own efforts in order to have the entity, the entity which retains the mark of its creator. In the act of knowing, one is both creator and possessor of thought; thought which is a synthesis of the thought formed within and maintained by oneself at the same time revealing itself as a truth given independent existence by it being “thought by everybody” (738). In the act of discovery, one appropriates through an act of uncovering, or moreover through a hunt in which knowledge is acquired through violation (ibid.). Following this idea of appropriation and possession as a hunt, Sartre further states that to hunt is to appropriate in order to consume. Knowledge is consumed in the act of discovery in the sense that it is taken into oneself and assimilated yet not fully absorbed, for if it were to be absorbed it would fail to be the in-itself as mine and just become me (739). Sartre states “The known object is my thought as a thing” based on a desire which at once seeks “a penetration and a superficial caress, a digestion and the contemplation from afar of an object which will never lose its form, the production of a thought by a continuous creation and the establishment of the total objective independence of that thought” (740). The acquisition of knowledge, for Sartre, is an act of appropriation; it is “to have.”

Sartre also speaks of “to play” in this section as having import for an Ethics, in that the seriousness at the heart of bad faith can be mitigated by the act of play because freedom is realized in the act of play (741). I omit here Sartre’s lengthy discussion on skiing and sliding, because I find it pheomenologically problematic in that it originates from a male, euro-centered (i.e. Caucasian), as well as perhaps upper class perspective which makes it un-relatable to the concrete experiences of many people. But, nonetheless, more commonly relatable is Sartre’s assertion that play at sport is a sort of mastery of the elements of the sport, of the water, earth, air (747). Common to all, “Art, science, play are activities of appropriation, either wholly or in part, and what they want to appropriate beyond the concrete object of their quest is being itself, the absolute being of the in-itself” (ibib.). Again, to be clear, what Sartre means by this is that appropriation is a synthesis in which what is mine is both of me as I am a for-itself and of an object as it is an in-itself, and desire is the lack of being that seeks to appropriate.

It is here we see a double relation of desire in that on one hand it is to be the ideal in-itself-for-it-self and on the other it is the relation to a concrete in-itself through the act of appropriation (747 – 748). “To do” is aligned with both “to be” and “to have,” however, Sartre asks if “to be” and “to have” are also aligned. In answering this question, we see that the relation of possession is one in which one’s possession of an object is a quality which “affects its very depths; it appears to me and it appears to others as making a part of the object’s being” (749). To possess an object means for the object to be possessed by someone in that the object is internally marked as belong to that person. There an “internal ontological bond between the possessed and the possessor” (751). To be sure, the object as an in-itself possessed “is not really affected by the act of appropriation” (ibid.). The ontological relation, the internal marking of the object, originates “from the insufficiency of being in the for-itself” (ibid.).  Sartre states, “The desire to have is at bottom reducible to the desire to be related to a certain object in a certain relation of being” (ibid.). The desire to possess an object, is a desire to be united with the object in a relation of possessor-possessed, and this relation is a relation of being which originates from the for-itself.

To explain this further, to possess an object is to posses the reason for being for the object. The object exists for the owner and has been made for the owner to do with what the owner will (752). The original relation of ownership was of one creating the objects which one would own. Even though luxury is a degradation of this original relationship of creation, luxury does not cause this relationship to disappear entirely (ibid.). The use of money to buy an object is symbolic for the creation of the object. To have, at bottom, is a relation of creation between oneself and the object. It is a relation of doing.

Moreover, Sartre states, “the bond of ownership which is established then is a bond of continuous creation; the object possessed is inserted by me into the total form of my environment; its existence is determined by my situation and by its integration in that same situation” (753). By being my object, this computer relates to my situation, replete with being situated in my home where I eat, sleep, relax, and serving the purpose of fulfilling my current project which is writing my paper for my Sartre seminar. In other words, my computer is deeply related to my existence and my existence creates my computer as mine. Without such a relation, it is merely another computer, fungible and interchangeable with any other computer in the class of computers.  Moreover, Sartre states, “to the extent that I appear to myself as creating objects by the sole relation of appropriation, these objects are myself. […] The totality of my possessions reflects the totality of my being. I am what I have” (754). So, the relation goes both ways. This computer is myself to the extent that I use it to fulfill my project. After I am finished tonight writing this paper, and I retire to watching satirical political comedy, my computer will represent me as it is both of me and of itself.

Sartre calls this relation “magical” because the objects I possess are both wholly outside and independent of me, but through my act of constant creation in possessing my objects, they are also of me (755). This object is an “in-itself which escapes me at each instant and whose creation at each instant I perpetuate” (ibid.). Sartre then makes a major move in his argument. He states,  “But precisely because I am always somewhere outside of myself, as an incompleteness which makes its being known to itself by what it is not, now when I possess, I transfer myself to the object possessed” (ibid.). Through my creative act, I transfer myself to an in-itself, and am faced with the in-itself as myself. I am the foundation of the in-self as myself. This entire paragraph is important, but in sum, this creative process by which I transfer myself to an in-itself through appropriation, “is precisely the project of the in-itself-for-itself” (ibid.). The possessed-possessor dyad is one which symbolizes the act of that “being which is in order to possess itself and whose possession is in its own creation – God” (ibid.). For brevity’s sake, I will forgo an exegesis of Sartre’s discussion on the ideal and symbolic of this relationship.

I will proceed then to conclude with a review of this question posed by Sartre: “What then is it which we seek to appropriate?” Sartre states that “Each possessed object which raises itself on the foundation of the world manifest the entire world […] To appropriate this object is then to appropriate the world symbolically” (760). I understand my cell phone as an example of Sartre’s point here. It is that in which the world is manifested to me, via texts, emails and the internet. The quality of being utilized as a tool to understand and communicate with the world is “the concrete quality which had been spread out over everything” (761). Thus, in appropriating my cell phone, I seek to appropriate and possess the world across my cell phone. Moreover, as possession is a relation in which I make myself the foundation of being, I in turn seek to make myself the foundation of the world, “a concrete totality of the in-itself,” which includes myself as a “for-itself existing in the mode of the in-itself” (ibid.). In other words, when I seek to appropriate the world through my cell phone, I make myself the creative foundation of the world at the same time as an in-itself existing among a totality of the in-itself. I make myself the in-itself-for-itself.

Sartre takes us back to how “to be” relates to “to have” through this discussion. “To be” directly confers being directly on the for-itself. “To have” utilizes the process of appropriation of the world that results in the individual making themselves the in-itself-for-itself to in order to confer being. Sartre states, “It is by the appropriation of the world that the project to have aims at realizing the same value as the desire to be” (763). Sartre asserts that in while “to be” directly confers being on the for-itself, “to have” indirectly “inserts the world between the for-itself and its being” (764). Each for-itself freely chooses the way in which it acts toward being and chooses either the direct or indirect route to being God; there are an infinity of ways in which one can “be” and “have,” and all of these acts reflect the for-itself’s choice (ibid.). Sartre states, “The goal of existential psychoanalysis is to rediscover through these empirical, concrete projects the original way in which each man has chosen his being” (ibid.).