Nietzsche and Beauvoir on Freedom and Power in Socio-Political Myths

Introduction

It is difficult to formulate an indisputable definition for the political and the ideological. However, if we understand the political as the organizing, sustaining, and ruling principles for the governance of peoples, and understand the ideological as the socio-political ideals that have become mythologized, naturalized, and habitually adhered to, then we have a basic starting point to understand the socio-political myths of freedom and power in the work of Friedrich Nietzsche and Simone de Beauvoir. In On the Genealogy of Morals (1887),[1] Nietzsche offers us a critique of the moral values that evolved to become a ubiquitous socio-political myth in Western societies as well as seeks to establish a new socio-political myth based on freedom and power as a replacement. Beauvoir, in The Ethics of Ambiguity (1947)[2] and The Second Sex (1949),[3] offers us an expanded conception of socio-political myth as well as a critique of Nietzsche’s replacement socio-political myth.

For this paper, I examine Nietzsche and Beauvoir’s conceptions of the socio-political myths of freedom and power. I begin by offering a reading of Nietzsche’s critique of “slave morality” and “bad conscience” as well as his establishment of the “will to power”. Next, I offer a reading of Beauvoir’s conceptions of myth through her examination of freedom as well as through her explicit references to Nietzsche as exemplifying her socio-political type termed “the adventurer.” I then, in the spirit of re-interpretation, offer a Nietzschean inspired response to Beauvoir’s critique in which I argue, through a careful delineation between the descriptive and the normative in his work, that Nietzsche could be re-interpreted as what I call a “motivator” as opposed to an adventurer. I conclude with a Beauvoirian inspired counter response in which I argue that, even granting a reading of Nietzsche as a motivator, he nonetheless promotes the facilitation of a socio-political myth in which strength is given absolute value. Such a socio-political myth, I ultimately argue, is the work of Beauvoir’s “serious” person. It is the work of the serious person who seeks to reduce the freedom in the ambiguity of existence to the idol of strength.

Nietzsche’s Critique and Establishment of Socio-Political Myth: “Slave Morality,” “Bad Conscience,” and “The Will to Power”

While Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals is undoubtedly a text concerned with ethics, it is also a text concerned with socio-political myth naturalized into ideology. Nietzsche seeks to examine both the socio-political conditions from which the normative value judgments of “good” and “evil” emerged as well as the socio-political consequences of these value judgments.[4] He seeks to critique these values’ efficacy for the prosperity of humanity, for the future advancement and progression of humanity, and for the betterment of humanity as a whole.[5] If, as noted above, we understand the political as that which is concerned with the organization, ruling, and sustaining of peoples bound under a shared governing system, then Nietzsche’s critique, while targeting ethical values, deeply involves the political.

His critique begins with an examination of the socio-political conditions from which normative value judgments regarding good and evil emerged. He argues that “good” and “evil” emerged from conceptions of “good” and “bad” prominent in ancient aristocratic societies.[6] In ancient aristocratic societies, “the noble, powerful, high-stationed and high-minded” “felt and established themselves and their actions as good, that is, of the first rank, in contradistinction to all the low, low-minded, common and plebeian”.[7] The noble, situated in a higher socio-political position, looked to themselves and found themselves as “good”.[8] Nietzsche describes a “pathos of distance” as “the protracted and domineering fundamental total feeling on the part of a higher ruling order in relation to a lower order”.[9]

It is from this cognitive-emotive distance, this looking down from a height constructed of socio-political and economic privilege, that the aristocratic conceived of themselves firstly as “good” and then only subsequently conceived of those beneath them as “bad”.[10] The higher, aristocratic, caste, saw themselves as inherently happy, beautiful, rich, noble, truthful, powerful, and only as an afterthought looked down to the lower caste and projected in them what the higher caste felt that they were not, namely, pitiful, ugly, poor, plebian, lying, and impotent.[11] The aristocratic, endowed with the socio-political and economic privilege associated with their higher rank, saw themselves as characteristically and inherently good, and used their power to “seal” and “take possession” of their status in language.[12] “Good” in this sense denoted the character traits of privilege and power, whereas “bad” denoted lack of privilege and power, i.e. any person not “good”.

Nietzsche argues that the “conceptual transformation” of “good” and “bad” to “good” and “evil” involved a “slave revolt in morality” resulting in a “radical revaluation” of values.[13] Those of the lower, priestly, caste, lacking privilege and power, were denied the ability to act. The lower caste, kept in socio-political and economic subservience, inhabited a situation of suffering and impotence. They were powerless to act via any social, political, or economic mechanism to better their situation. It is this frustration born of complete powerless over one’s situation and suffering, and the anger and hatred that emerges as a result, that Nietzsche calls “ressentiment”.[14] He states, “The slave morality begins when ressentiment itself become creative and gives birth to values: the ressentiment of natures that are denied the true reaction, that of deeds, and compensate themselves with an imaginary revenge”.[15] Powerless to affect socio-political and economic change, powerless to act substantially to relieve their suffering, the lower caste imagines a revenge. Such imagined revenge mitigates their suffering. It makes their powerlessness more bearable because it gives them an imaginary power over their oppressors. In short, it is a psychological coping mechanism in response to a suffering they are otherwise unable to do anything about.

This imagined revenge is the revaluation of values. Where the aristocratic posited “good” as noble, powerful, beautiful, happy, and “beloved of God,” the priestly caste inverted these values so that “‘the wretched alone are the good; the poor, impotent, lowly alone are the good; the suffering, deprived, sick, ugly alone are the pious, alone are blessed by God, blessedness is for them alone – and you, the powerful and noble, are on the contrary the evil, the cruel, the lustful, the insatiable, the accursed, and damned!’”[16] Whereas the creation of “good” in the noble value system originated with the nobles themselves, and “bad” was merely an afterthought, in the priestly value system “evil” becomes the primary value designation given toward the higher caste and “good” denotes the lower caste merely as an afterthought.[17]

Nietzsche calls this the “inversion of the value-positing eye – this need to direct one’s view outward instead of back to oneself” and states that this “is the essence of ressentiment: in order to exist, slave morality always first needs a hostile external world; its action is fundamentally a reaction”.[18] The socio-politically and economically powerless reacted to their oppression in the only way they could, by inverting the values of their oppressors. Denied the ability to act socio-politically or economically, they looked to their oppressors, deemed their oppressors “evil,” and then consequently, deemed themselves as “good”. The lower caste, denied control to act within the world, to have control in and shape the world, took control in the only way they could, by creating a new socio-political myth.

The lower caste created a new socio-political myth with “a history of two thousand years behind it and which we no longer see because it – has been victorious”.[19] Nietzsche argues this myth has become naturalized and embedded in Western societies to the extent that privilege and power is equated with “evil” and lack of privilege and power is equated with “good”. It is an ideology that Nietzsche conceives of as having detrimental consequences for Western societies. He argues that this value inversion is a lie against humanity, that it represents the taming of humanity’s natural instincts, a weakening and passivity of humanity, a sickness that stunts humankind’s flourishing, and a distortion of happiness.[20]

For Nietzsche, this lie tells humans that it is better, it is a merit, to be weak and passive rather than strong and active, that one must subdue and restrain one’s instincts for freedom and the will to power, and that one must adapt (react) instead of act.[21] The result is the “internalization” of human instincts, where human instincts “turn inward” against oneself, where the “instinct for freedom pushed back and repressed, incarcerated within and finally able to discharge and vent itself only on itself” results in self-abuse.[22] This is a movement where the instinct for activity, the need to be able to act within an on the world, to have control in and shape the world, is repressed to such an extent that it turns against oneself causing oneself to act against oneself, to punish and abuse oneself. These instincts for acting do not dissipate, they have to be released and go somewhere. If one cannot direct their instincts outward into the external world, then these instincts can only be directed inward. He calls this movement “bad conscience”.[23]

Having argued that the dominant socio-political myth is harmful for humanity, Nietzsche compliments his critique with a proposal for a new socio-political myth. In both “erecting an ideal” and “knocking one down,” he argues against passivity and weakness, ideals that are “all hostile to life” and “slander the world,” in favor of strength and activity, ideals in line with “sense, instinct, nature, animal”.[24] In other words, he argues for what he calls the “instinct for freedom” or the “will to power”.[25] He equates the instinct for freedom with the will to power, that is, consequently, to have freedom is one in the same thing as to have power. Drives for freedom and power, for Nietzsche, reside inherently in humanity as instinctual, natural, and animalistic beings. Life’s “fundamental concept, [is] that of activity”.[26] Will to power, he states, is “the essence of life” which entails “spontaneous, aggressive, expansive, form-giving forces that give new interpretations and directions”.[27] He links freedom with the “wild” and “prowling man” in which the instincts of “hostility, cruelty, joy in persecuting, in attacking, in change, in destruction” reside.[28] There is no “neutral substratum,” “there is no ‘being’ behind doing, effecting, becoming; ‘the doer’ is merely a fiction added to the deed – the deed is everything”.[29] There is no subject, essence, or soul, that exists apart from action within nature.

In other words, there is only instinct and action. For Nietzsche, there is no such thing as a subject who can choose to act completely contrary to their nature. Freedom is not absolute. In an essentialist move, he posits that we are constituted by nature to act in accord with our instincts. Life, by nature, is active. The ability to be active, that is the ability to act in accord with our instincts, for him, is freedom and power. All of life seeks instinctually to be active, it seeks to have control in and shape the world. In controlling and shaping the world, which entails for Nietzsche change, destruction, aggression, cruelty and hostility, one finds pleasure and happiness.

Significantly, Nietzsche’s interpretation of the conceptual transformation of values from the nobles to the priestly, is itself a part of him setting up his own socio-political myth. His concepts of slave morality, revaluation of values, and bad conscience are all his own attempts at a will to power, that is, an attempt at controlling and shaping the external world through a new interpretation, i.e. setting up a socio-political myth. Nietzsche’s new socio-political myth ultimately culminates in his advocacy for a stronger and more active future for humanity through his conceptions of freedom and the will to power.

Beauvoir’s Critique of Nietzsche’s Socio-Political Myth: Freedom and Active Creation of Meaning and Value

Although Beauvoir does not offer an explicit and detailed reading of Nietzsche in The Ethics of Ambiguity, the reading offered above does seem to align with her reading of his conception of freedom and power. She appears to agree with his critique in so far as within his critique individuals set up absolute values by which they define themselves and limit their actions, thereby limiting their freedom. Like Nietzsche, there are no absolute values for Beauvoir. Values are created when “freedom makes itself a lack […] It is desire which creates the desirable, and the project which sets up the end”.[30] Nietzsche, she states, “also railed at the deceitful stupidity of the serious [person] and [their] universe” of absolute values.[31] We can even read her agreement that the priestly occupy the serious personality type due to their lack of socio-political and economic ability to act when she states that “The less economic and social circumstances allow an individual to act upon the world, the more this world appears to him as given”, that is to say, as natural or as an unalterable fact, as is the case of “those who are called ‘the humble’”.[32]

However, she argues, nonetheless, that Nietzsche posits a form of solipsism, in that he mistakenly “exalt[s] the bare will to power”.[33] In his advocacy of his conception of freedom and power, he rightly recognizes that the individual must choose and create their own values, however, he is mistaken in that he then seeks to impose those values on others.[34] “The result,” she states, “would be a conflict of opposed wills enclosed in their solitude,” a conflict that leads to tyranny.[35]

Beauvoir’s critique of Nietzsche’s socio-political myth emerges from her conception of freedom. Her conception of freedom, like Nietzsche’s, begins in a conception of what a human is, i.e. it begins in ontology. Beauvoir, like Nietzsche, denies that humans have a substratum, a solidified being as a subject, essence, or soul. Unlike Nietzsche who conceives of humanity as only a lack of being, she conceives of humanity as inhabiting an ambiguous condition in that humans are both a lack of being and “a way of being”.[36] There is an ambiguity between lack of being and being. That is to say, humans are immanently placed within nature and the world, they cannot free themselves from their facticity.[37] However, they are also rational subjectivities, as in existents that have the cognitive ability to conceive of themselves as distinct and unique individuals existing temporally, and thus, they have the ability transcend beyond their facticity.[38]

Humans exist temporally. The past becomes unalterable facts, the future remains open to transformative and creative transcendence, all the while, in the present moment, humans are nothing.[39] While there are facts of human existence, such as instincts, humans are not locked into a solidified being that determines them to act in any particular way. Humans are not free to alter their immanent facticity, but they are free in how they transcend their facticity. That is to say, and in agreement with Nietzsche, there are no absolute values, nor is there meaning apart from the meaning imbued into life and the world by humans.[40] However, contra Nietzsche, humans are not locked into the facticity of their instincts.

To elaborate, humans at first exist as a nothingness, as a lack of being, as a negativity. As a rational subjectivity, humans spontaneously transcend beyond themselves, that is to say they “cast [themselves] into the world,” “always project[ing] [themselves] toward something” in the world.[41] In projecting oneself into the world, one moves to the positive aspect of existence. One projects themselves into the world as an existent, transcending beyond the immanence of their facticity, and endowed with the active capacities to create and give meaning to one’s life and world. However, this movement must be constant and continuous, in that one must return constantly in each moment to the negative in order to actively reaffirm the positive.[42]

Beauvoir states, this movement “does not suppress my instincts, desires, plans, and passions. It merely prevents any possibility of failure by refusing to set up as absolutes the ends toward which my transcendence thrusts itself, and by considering them in their connection with the freedom which projects them”.[43] Existence is a spontaneous projection into the world toward something in the world within the ambiguity of immanence and transcendence. Freedom is the constant movement within existence of creating and giving meaning and value to one’s life and world.[44] Instincts are our immanent facticity. However, these instincts do not lock us into solidified being. We are also subjectivities that transcend beyond the immanent, and in doing so, we are free to choose to give these instincts value and meaning. One can say that while Nietzsche conceived of humans’ lack of being as a restriction on freedom, because a lack of being means that one could not choose to act contrary to one’s instincts, Beauvoir conceives of humans’ lack of being as the very foundation of freedom, because a lack of being means that one is not locked into being.

Interestingly, freedom for both Nietzsche and Beauvoir entails active creation. For Nietzsche, freedom is the ability to act, and moreover, this ability to act takes on a creative aspect in that one is most free when one has the most ability to shape the world, giving the world new interpretations and directions. For Beauvoir, freedom is active creation. As noted above, freedom entails the active creation and giving of meaning and value to one’s life and world. Moreover, this creation is never complete. In concrete terms, whatever end one sets for oneself, one must constantly act toward endowing that end with meaning and value by constantly reaffirming one’s choice in pursuing that end.[45] Each act serves as a departure point for a new act of transcendence, that is, each act is a creation serving as a point of departure for new acts of creation.[46] However, each act occurs within the immanence of a world we did not create, an oppositional world that presents us with obstacles we are unable to overcome and control.[47]

Nietzsche’s mythical conception of this oppositional world is that of a struggle over power and control, and he ties freedom to the ability to be able to overcome obstacles through control of the external world. For him, passive resignation is a failure of freedom, and Beauvoir would seem to agree stating that “there is hardly a sadder virtue than resignation”.[48] However, she argues, that in stubbornly attempting to control what cannot be controlled, “freedom exhausts itself in this useless gesture without succeeding in giving itself a content”.[49] Thus, for her, freedom must make the continuous “free movement of existence” its ultimate end.[50] She states, “My freedom must not seek to trap being but to disclose it. The disclosure is the transition from being to existence. The goal which my freedom aims at is conquering existence across the always inadequate density of being”.[51]

That is to say, while both Nietzsche and Beauvoir link freedom to active creation, Nietzsche conceives of freedom as the active conquering of the world, while Beauvoir conceives of freedom as the active movement to transcend beyond the immanent uncontrollable facts of the world in order to conquer existence. For him, active creation is the conquest of the external world, and conquest of the world is controlling the world through creative active reinterpretation. For her, active creation is the conquest of existence, that is to say it is a fluid movement between the internal subjectivity and the external world whereby one never retreats into or reduces existence to solidified being.

Herein we find Beauvoir’s ultimate critique of Nietzsche’s socio-political myth. She likens Nietzsche to an “adventurer”.[52] The adventurer, having recognized the lack of being and that there are no absolute values in the world, recognizes their independence and active ability to create and give meaning to the world.[53] However, they are “indifferent to the content, that is, to the human meaning of [their] action,” they think they “can assert [their] own existence without taking into account that of others”.[54] The adventurer cares “only for their pleasure and glory,” they are “indifferent to the ends they set up for themselves” and “still more indifferent to the means of attaining” their ends.[55] The adventurer harbors a deep contempt for humanity, and it is through “this very contempt” that they conceive of themselves as breaking “away from the contemptible condition in which those who do not imitate [their] pride are stagnating”.[56]

“Thus,” she continues, “nothing prevents [them] from sacrificing these insignificant beings to [the adventurer’s] own will for power,” in that these insignificant beings are nothing but disposable instruments for the adventurer’s pleasure and glory.[57] The adventurer “appears as an enemy in the eyes of others. His undertaking is not only an individual wager; it is a combat”.[58] The adventurer may find a sort of happiness in this combat.[59] However, once this activity has solidified into a fact of the past “it must, in order to remain alive, be animated anew by a human intention which must transcend it toward the future into recognition or admiration”.[60] When the adventurer dies, “the only meaning [their life] will have will be the one [others] confer upon it”.[61] The adventurer willed their life “to be an affirmation, an example to all mankind,” but, without the free recognition of others their life “falls back upon itself, it becomes futile and unjustified”.[62]

We read in these quotes Nietzsche’s socio-political myth’s contempt for the “humble” and “meek,” as well as his assertion that happiness and pleasure reside in the power to control and shape the world, even to the extent of destruction and cruelty. Nietzsche’s will to power is an active striving to create and give meaning to the world. However, it strives to do so through conquest of the external world, through the conquest of others. He creates and gives meaning to the world through his own socio-political myth and then seeks to impose that meaning and value on others. In this conquest, he denies others the freedom to create and give meaning to the world.

Nietzsche’s advocacy of the myth of the will to power is a tyrannical sophism because he takes the strong individual “as a transcendence” while reducing others to “pure immanences,” “he thus arrogates to himself the right to treat” others like instruments for his own pleasure and glory.[63] Beauvoir states “We see the sophism on which his conduct is based: of the ambiguous condition which is that of all men, he retains for himself the only aspect of a transcendence which is capable of justifying itself; for the others, the contingent and unjustified aspect of immanence”.[64] The will to power is a socio-political myth that posits that oneself, as an individual transcendence, has the right to act on others as immanent objects because oneself alone can justify one’s own existence by giving meaning and value to the world. It posits that individual transcendences alone give meaning and value to the world by acting on it and controlling it.

Beauvoir states “Freedom is the source from which all significations and all values spring. It is the original condition of all justification of existence. The man who seeks to justify his life must want freedom itself absolutely and above everything else”.[65] Nietzsche subordinates universal freedom to the will to power because he conceives of freedom as the will to power whereas Beauvoir distinguishes between the two concepts. For Beauvoir, freedom to create and give meaning to the world requires a reciprocal recognition of that freedom. One’s existence is justified through the free recognition of others. The conquered cannot justify, as in give meaning and value, to the conqueror’s acts because they have been denied the ability to freely do so.

It is analogous to a conqueror forcing the conquered at gunpoint to proclaim how powerful, intelligent, beautiful, and altogether awesome the conqueror is. The conquered may say the words, but without being able to say the words freely, the words fail to have meaning and value. Yet, the conqueror desires such justification, requires the recognition and admiration, because the conqueror’s acts can only have meaning and value with this justification. Put another way, in order for the conqueror’s acts of conquest to have meaning and value they must be justified by free recognition, but this free recognition is immediately nullified by the conqueror’s very acts of conquest. Herein is the problem with Nietzsche’s myth of the will to power, namely, it is unable to be justified freely through reciprocal recognition, and thus, it nullifies itself, never obtaining meaning and value.

A Nietzschean Inspired Response to Beauvoir: A Reinterpretation of Nietzsche’s Socio-Political Myth

Beauvoir’s critique of Nietzsche’s socio-political myth is that it posits a form of combative solipsism. She conceives of his myth as isolating individuals in their own pursuits for conquest, and as such, as completely devaluing the need for reciprocal recognition between free existents. In response to Beauvoir, Nietzsche’s concept of will to power entails a creative act of reinterpretation and redirection. Given that there is no absolute meaning nor are there absolute values in the world, whatever it is that exists in the world has been given an interpretation through a will to power, and it is continually reinterpreted through competing wills to power.[66]

The meaning and value given to whatever exists in the world “is again and again reinterpreted to new ends, taken over, transformed, and redirected by some power superior to it; all events in the organic world are a subduing, a becoming master, and all subduing and becoming master involves a fresh interpretation, an adaptation through which any previous ‘meaning’ and ‘purpose’ are necessarily obscured or even obliterated”.[67] He states, “The ‘evolution’ of a thing, a custom, an organ is thus by no means its progressus toward a goal, even less a logical progressus by the shortest route and with the smallest expenditure of force – but a succession of more or less profound, more or less mutually independent processes of subduing, plus the resistances they encounter, the attempts at transformation for the purpose of defense and reaction, and the results of successful counteractions”.[68] I argue, through my own creative act of Nietzschean inspired reinterpretation and redirection, that Nietzsche’s myth does not necessarily fall into solipsism.

His socio-political myth does not necessarily fall into solipsism because, firstly, he conceives of the advancement of humankind as the progression toward strength, toward “greater power,” toward life as activity, and correlatively, a greater freedom to create and give meaning to the world.[69] Secondly, he does indeed posit a conception of the adage “what does not kill you makes you stronger.” In enduring all kinds of suffering, “born as one is to a subterranean life of struggle,” “one emerges again and again into the light, one experiences again and again one’s golden hour of victory – and then one stands forth as one was born, unbreakable, tensed, ready for new, even harder, remoter things, like a bow that distress only serves to draw tauter”.[70] Thirdly, and finally, he asserts that it is others, as one’s enemies and combatants, that serve as the impetus to one’s advancement and motivate one to become stronger. A genuine love of one’s enemies is possible, for Nietzsche, as reverence and honor for the enemy who pushes one to become stronger, that is, for a strong enemy whose having been overcome serves as one’s “mark of distinction”.[71]

Nietzsche does have a conception of reciprocity between others through his conception of enemies making each other stronger and his adulation of progressive strength. This progress is continuous, so one must always need others and others must always need oneself. Even more, if a continuous progression of strength is what he ultimately values, and if one achieves this progression through one’s enemies, then one would not want one’s enemies to be weak and degenerate. One would not want to destroy one’s enemies but to instead push them to be stronger so that they can reciprocally push oneself to be stronger. Otherwise, if one destroys all of one’s enemies or if all of one’s enemies are too weak and degenerate, then the continuous progression of strength would be halted.

Nietzsche’s socio-political myth’s contempt for the priestly value system is because he sees it as a regression of humankind.[72] The priestly value system is a regression of humankind, for him, because it seeks to remove humans from strength-building combat by disengaging them from their enemies, and thus, it destines humankind to stagnation and atrophy. The priestly myth, in other words, advocates allowing oneself to be acted on instead of acting. The priestly still harbor the instincts for will to power, as evidenced by their creation of myth. They are just not honest about their instincts; “While the noble man lives in trust and openness with himself […] the man of ressentiment is neither upright nor naïve nor honest and straightforward with himself”.[73] The priestly myth celebrates an afterlife in which those who have harmed them suffer eternally and where they are the blessed whom, Nietzsche quoting Thomas Aquinas, “in the kingdom of heaven will see the punishments of the damned, in order that their bliss be more delightful for them”.[74] Justice, according to this myth, will be served in the afterlife.[75] The priestly repress their instincts for freedom and will to power, and repress their delight in exerting their freedom and will to power.

It is here that we have to be careful to delineate the descriptive from the normative in Nietzsche’s myth. Nietzsche, I suggest, is primarily providing us with a psychological socio-political description of how the world works. Consider his analogy of the birds of prey and the lambs.[76] The weak lambs may chastise and curse the strong birds of prey who carry them off to eat them, but birds of prey are by nature strong, there is no “neutral substratum” from which they can choose to not be strong and not love eating lambs, and they are not free to be anything other than what they are. To demand that the bird of prey not be strong is tantamount to demanding that the lamb not be weak.

One may read this analogy as an analogy that equates the noble with the birds of prey and the priestly with the lambs. I argue that this is an incorrect reading because it is inconsistent with the rest of what Nietzsche has argued. He has argued that all humans have an instinct for will to power and freedom, it is just that the priestly have repressed this instinct. They have repressed this instinct to the extent that their will to power has turned against themselves. Their will to power turning against themselves, because it has nowhere else to be released, demonstrates that they by nature have this instinct. A more consistent reading would be to equate all humans with the birds of prey. All humans have the instinct for will to power, to be strong, to actively create and give meaning, that is, to control this world. The problem with the priestly myth is that it lies to the priestly, it tells them they are lambs when actually they are birds of prey. This is not a normative claim. This is a descriptive claim, which is at bottom a political claim.

The priestly myth lived and enacted socio-politically tells people to do nothing now to overcome their struggles, because they are too weak and, moreover, this weakness makes them blessed. It tells people to be patient and that their suffering in life makes them blessed. It tells people that justice will be achieved in the afterlife, that those who have oppressed them will be punished and that they will be rewarded for their suffering. This myth teaches people to patiently, humbly, and quietly endure their suffering, not to overcome their suffering, not to become stronger, and not to fight against those who oppress them. Socially and politically, this myth teaches people to succumb and to endure their oppression. In succumbing and enduring, they are not overcoming and becoming stronger, and moreover, they are not pushing others to overcome and become stronger either.

Nietzsche’s writing style itself is an expression of his will to power. He mocks the priestly myth and the values extolled by it. He taunts the priestly people who live according to this myth, who conceive of themselves as passive, weak, humble, patient, powerless, who give in to a quiet resignation and consider themselves meritorious for it.[77] In other words, Nietzsche makes himself an enemy of the priestly. He is the enemy trying to make the priestly stronger. In one sense, his comments could be considered as a cruel attempt to conquer and control. However, in another sense, I read him as trying to motivate these people. Instead of an adventurer, he could be read as a “motivator.” He is trying to get these people to be honest about their situation; honest about the way socio-political power works, about their hate, and about their own strength. He is also trying to get them to take action to overcome their suffering and oppression.

Adherence to the priestly myth really only justifies and perpetuates their oppression. The strong in positions of power are not going to give up their power, and they are not going to bow down to displays of weakness. Another way to reinterpret the birds of prey and lambs analogy is exactly in this regard, that those who take up positions of weakness are only going to be consumed, or exploited, by those who take up positions of strength. Those in positions of strength love others to be in positions of weakness, they are “tasty,” because then they can easily exploit them for their own ends. Adherence to the belief that the weak, oppressed, and downtrodden are really the blessed and good only keeps the oppressed and downtrodden weak, and it makes them complacent in their oppression.

Nietzsche does indeed assert that these priestly values have won the ideological battle.[78] However, I would offer the qualification that they have won in the sense that the mass of humanity in the Western world ascribes to and submits to these values under the guise of civilization while the few strong continue to oppress them. The two sides, the priestly and the noble, have been at ideological war for centuries, a struggle over political control fueled by a will to power. But where the noble openly and actively displays its will to power, the priestly represses and hides its own will to power. The priestly, thus, is only able to react and adapt to the noble’s active creation and giving of meaning to the world. In only reacting and adapting, the priestly removes themselves from the battle, and thus are prevented from overcoming their oppression while at the same time stunting humanity’s continuous progression.

Interestingly, Beauvoir could be read as in agreement with this Nietzschean inspired reinterpretation when she states that revolt “is fulfilled as freedom only by returning to the positive, that is, by giving itself a content through action, escape, political struggle, revolution. Human transcendence then seeks, with the destruction of the given situation, the whole future which will flow from its victory. It resumes its indefinite rapport with itself”.[79] If it is indeed the case, for Beauvoir, that human progression is a continuous active movement toward the end of freedom, a project continually given meaning and value freely by humans, then the continuous active movement of enemies pushing each other to transcend beyond their situations would be in accord with Beauvoir’s conceptions of freedom. However, even if this is so, there is still the question of how Beauvoir would respond to the value Nietzsche assigns to strength.

A Beauvoirian Counter Response: Nietzsche as the “Serious” Person

One could argue that this Nietzschean inspired reinterpretation commits the naturalistic fallacy. Beauvoir’s critique of Nietzsche certainly seems to lean in this direction in that she does argue that while our natural instincts are a part of our facticity, we can nonetheless choose a multiplicity of ways to transcend our facticity. In other words, just because we have these instincts does not mean that we ought to make them the foundation of any socio-political myth. Nietzsche’s response, of course, is that we are not free to choose not to be what is so deeply imbued in our nature. We can try to not act in accord with our instincts, but repression only leads to self-maltreatment. However, Beauvoir could certainly respond that we would not be repressing our instincts if we were to direct them toward something other than brute displays of strength that seek to act on and control others and the world. The instinct to act on and control the world is at bottom the spontaneous subjective transcendence beyond the immanent, that is, the need to create and give meaning to one’s life and the world. This need to create and give meaning to the world need not necessarily entail an instinct to control others and the world through brute strength. She could respond that Nietzsche’s socio-political myth sets up strength as an absolute value, that is, as an idol.

In The Second Sex, Beauvoir states,

There are different kinds of myths. This one, sublimating an immutable aspect of the human condition—that is, the “division” of humanity into two categories of individuals—is a static myth; it projects into a Platonic heaven a reality grasped through experience or conceptualized from experience; for fact, value, significance, notion, and empirical law, it substitutes a transcendent Idea, timeless, immutable, and necessary. This idea escapes all contention because it is situated beyond the given; it is endowed with an absolute truth.[80]

 

Beauvoir here is speaking of the myth of the “Eternal Feminine,” however, we can also read here a response to Nietzsche’s advocacy and adulation of strength. Nietzsche, based on his observations of the way the world is, divides humanity into the categories of those who take up positions of power and those who take up positions of weakness. He reduces all of existence to the activity of strength, strength as that instinct that we cannot choose to not be and as what we ultimately must be. In doing so, he is setting up strength as a transcendent Idea that is timeless, immutable, and necessary, even if it is not attached to a neutral substratum as a subject. Thus, he gives strength absolute value and truth. In setting up an absolute value and truth, Nietzsche is doing exactly what he denounces. He becomes a serious person who denies his own freedom. Beauvoir states, “There is the serious from the moment that freedom denies itself to the advantage of ends which one claims are absolute”.[81]

In setting up strength as an absolute value, Nietzsche “denies the subjective tension of freedom” because he is “forbidding himself universally to will freedom in an indefinite movement”.[82] He begins in immanency, in the negative, as a nothingness and spontaneous freedom, then transcends beyond the immanent to the positive by creating and giving meaning to his life and the world through the myth of the will to power, but then he halts the movement. He does not return to the negative, and then subsequently back to the positive, in order to continue the indefinite movement of freedom. He does not return to continually endow the myth with meaning and value. He halts at the transcendent idol of strength, failing to recognize that strength is not timeless, immutable, and necessary, but something that he has endowed freely with meaning and value. Beauvoir continues, “By virtue of the fact that he refuses to recognize that he is freely establishing the value of the end he sets up, the serious man makes himself the slave of that end”.[83]

The fact that Nietzsche himself first identifies the serious person does not preclude him from falling into the same existential trap, thereby contradicting himself. As Beauvoir states, “the serious man readily takes refuge in disputing the serious, but it is the serious of others which he disputes, not his own”.[84] Nietzsche’s movement beyond the negative to the positive takes him to a critique of the external world, but because he never returns to the negative, he never returns to reflect upon the internal aspects of existence and the fluid movement of freedom between the internal subjectivity and the external world.

Furthermore, Beauvoir attributing to Nietzsche the adventurer personality type, does not preclude him from also inhabiting the serious personality type as well. She states “the adventurer’s attitude is not always pure,” in that the adventurer, underneath their capricious façade, may “pursue a secret goal in utter seriousness”, such as glory.[85] The adventurer-serious person may very well “proclaim their skepticism in regard to recognized values” all the while harboring their own “attachment to the values of the serious”.[86]

Nietzsche’s attachment to the idol of strength seeks to not only limit his own movement of freedom, but that of others. His social-political myth attempts to naturalize strength and the performance of strength as the only legitimate means of actively creating and giving meaning to one’s life and world, as the only legitimate means of achieving freedom. His myth tells those who occupy positions of weakness that they must become like those who take up positions of strength in order to overcome their oppression. He seeks to impose his values of strength onto others as absolute values.

This imposition is another form of oppression because it seeks to limit in others the free movement between the negative, or internal, and positive, or external, aspects of existence in regard to the value of strength, and correlatively, because it seeks to severely limit the multiplicity of ways in which others transcend beyond the immanent facticity of their situations. In other words, it seeks to impose on others the naturalized belief that strength unquestioningly has ultimate value and if one were to adhere to such a belief, then one becomes unable to fathom the multiplicity of possibilities open to them to create and give meaning to their life and world, as well as to overcome their oppression.

Conclusion

Nietzsche and Beauvoir’s work directs our attention to the socio-political myths that have become naturalized into political ideology. I have sought in this paper to put these two thinkers into conversation with each other. I have sought to draw attention to how, despite their agreement on the lack of being that actively creates and gives meaning and value to one’s life and world, they come to divergent conceptions of freedom and power. I argued that Nietzsche equates freedom with power and in doing so ultimately advocates for strength as an absolute value. Beauvoir, on the other hand, draws a distinction between freedom and power, and thus, ultimately advocates for freedom as above all else that which must be preserved. In reading Nietzsche as conceiving of strength as an absolute value, I offered a Nietzschean inspired reinterpretation as a response to Beauvoir’s claims that his will to power results in a tyrannical solipsism. This reinterpretation refutes the claim that Nietzsche’s socio-political myth necessarily falls into solipsism. However, ultimately, via a Beauvoirian inspired counter response, Nietzsche’s socio-political myth nonetheless falls into the spirit of seriousness, which, if naturalized and adhered to, becomes oppressive. I argued Nietzsche’s socio-political myth becomes an oppressive ideology, naturalized and adhered to, because it limits the continuous movement of freedom, the movement between the immanent, negative, internal, and the transcendent, positive, and external aspects of existence.

[1] Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, trans. by Walter Kaufmann and R.J. Hollingdale (New York City: Vintage Books, 1989).

[2] Simone de Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity, trans. Bernard Frechtman (New York City: Citadel Press, 1976).

[3] Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, trans. Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier (New York City: Vintage Books, 2011).

[4] Nietzsche, p. 17

[5] Ibid. pp. 17; 20

[6] Ibid. pp. 25-26

[7] Ibid. p. 25

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid. pp. 36-37

[11] Ibid. pp. 30-31; 33-34; 36-37

[12] Ibid. pp. 25-26; 28; 30-31; 36-37

[13] Ibid. pp. 28; 33-34

[14] Ibid. pp. 33-34; 36

[15] Ibid. p. 36

[16] Ibid. pp. 33-34

[17] Ibid. pp. 36-37; 39

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid. p. 34

[20] Ibid. pp. 33-34; 38; 42-43

[21] Ibid. pp. 38; 46; 79

[22] Ibid. pp. 84-85; 87

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid. p. 95

[25] Ibid. pp. 87-88

[26] Ibid. p. 78

[27] Ibid. p. 79

[28] Ibid. pp. 84-85

[29] Ibid. p. 45

[30] Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity, pp. 14-15

[31] Ibid. p. 46

[32] Ibid. pp 47-48

[33] Ibid. p. 75

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid. p. 13

[37] Ibid. p. 7

[38] Ibid.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid. pp. 14-15

[41] Ibid. pp. 24-25

[42] Ibid.

[43] Ibid. pp. 13-14

[44] Ibid. pp. 14-15; 24-25

[45] Ibid. pp. 26-28

[46] Ibid. p. 28

[47] Ibid. pp. 28-29

[48] Ibid. p. 28

[49] Ibid.

[50] Ibid. p. 29

[51] Ibid. p. 30

[52] Ibid. pp. 71-72

[53] Ibid. p. 59

[54] Ibid. p. 61

[55] Ibid.

[56] Ibid.

[57] Ibid.

[58] Ibid.

[59] Ibid. pp. 62-63

[60] Ibid. p. 63

[61] Ibid.

[62] Ibid.

[63] Ibid. p. 102

[64] Ibid.

[65] Ibid. p. 24

[66] Nietzsche, p. 77

[67] Ibid.

[68] Ibid. p. 78

[69] Ibid. pp. 78-79

[70] Ibid. p. 44

[71] Ibid. p. 39

[72] Ibid. p. 44

[73] Ibid. p. 38

[74] Ibid. p. 49

[75] Ibid. p. 48

[76] Ibid. pp. 44-45

[77] Ibid. p. 46

[78] Ibid. pp. 34; 53

[79] Ibid. p. 32

[80] Beauvoir, The Second Sex, p. 266

[81] Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity, p. 46

[82] Ibid. p. 48

[83] Ibid.

[84] Ibid. p. 50

[85] Ibid. p. 59

[86] Ibid.

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Flesh and Blood Home

I need flesh and blood

Wrapped around my bones

Pulling me into it

Instead of this robotic shell

That echoes a metallic ting

Crying out in angry pain

Whenever a stone strikes it

I need to breathe

Pulling deep, saturating my lungs

Invisibly particle free air

Unpolluted by rational

Self-interested wealth-maximization

Oxygenating my rushing blood

With impassioned hope

I need a mind filled with heart

And a heart filled with mind

Compassion and reason

Perfectly intertwined

In willful un-ignorance

A self-reflective transposition

Of world-reflective thought

I need a home

Where nightmares dare not tread

Where I can wrap and warm my

Metal-free flesh in safety

Replenish my hope and blood

And ease my heart and mind to sleep

Comforted in having no conception of “alone”

Free Speech, Terrorism, Incitement of Violence, and White Supremacy

Terrorism is defined as the use of violence to advance a political message. More specifically, “The FBI looks to the Code of Federal Regulations definition [of terrorism]: ‘The unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.'” White supremacists fit this definition.

Moreover, we have always had laws restricting speech in this country when the speech will likely cause a significant harm to others. We have laws against fraud, libel, and slander, that is, laws that restrict false statements.

But, more importantly, WE HAVE LAWS AGAINST INCITING VIOLENCE. The organization, participation, promotion, and encouragement of a riot is not protected speech. To be clear, a “riot” is legally defined as “a public disturbance involving (1) an act or acts of violence by one or more persons part of an assemblage of three or more persons, which act or acts shall constitute a clear and present danger of, or shall result in, damage or injury to the property of any other person or to the person of any other individual or (2) a threat or threats of the commission of an act or acts of violence by one or more persons part of an assemblage of three or more persons having, individually or collectively, the ability of immediate execution of such threat or threats, where the performance of the threatened act or acts of violence would constitute a clear and present danger of, or would result in, damage or injury to the property of any other person or to the person of any other individual.

Now to be sure, the “the mere oral or written (1) advocacy of ideas or (2) expression of belief” is protected speech, EXCEPT when it involves the “advocacy of any act or acts of violence or assertion of the rightness of, or the right to commit, any such act or acts.

It is not a free speech issue with white supremacist groups. These are organized, assembled, groups whose “speech” is by its very nature a promotion and encouragement of violence against anyone who is not them or does not adhere to their ideologies. Their “speech”, their verbal and symbolic acts, are direct threats of violence. The facts are clear: (1) hate crimes have spiked 20% since the 2016 presidential election of a white supremacist sympathizer , (2) the majority of hate crime offenders are white, and (3) these white offenders consistently have ties to white supremacist groups. What it comes down to is that white supremacist “speech” should not be protected because it is terrorism and it incites violence.

We have a responsibility to do what we can to promote the freedom of others, so long as that freedom does not result in the harm of anyone else. Do what you can, but the simplest way to begin is to demand that white supremacist groups be legally identified as terrorist organizations.

 

 

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

Introduction

“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