The Epistemological and Ethical Functions of Kant’s Binary and Foucault’s Critique of Critique of the Binary

Introduction

In Kant’s Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant famously posits his categorical imperative, asserting that rationality must be respected in itself, for its own sake. Such an imperative, argues Kant, applies universally, that is, its application is independent from all particularities. However, in Kant’s practical works on geography and anthropology, Kant appears to be very concerned with the particular, and moreover, appears to take seriously how these particulars function epistemologically and ethically. For this paper, I explore the logic of the binary in Kant’s work, as well as how this logic functions epistemologically and ethically.

In the first section, I explore how Kant, I suggest, utilizes a conception of A and non-A. Kant associates A with “human” as what Kant considers is its fullest achievement of being; human as fully moral. A is associated with what is known and with the “good.” As such, A serves as the centralizing figure by which to organize, order and classify, human beings. Conversely, non-A is associated with what is lack, the “unknown,” and “evil.” Kant, I suggest, uses this binary to hierarchically order a whole range of values, sub-As, in between A and non-A as well as to define himself as A, as a knowing subject. In the second section, I follow Foucault’s reading of Kant’s works and suggest that Foucault’s critique of critique of the binary offers us a way to conceptualize Kant’s critique of the knowing subject. Kant’s critique of the knowing subject, I suggest, sets up and maintains a coherent structure to Kant’s ordered hierarchy by which knowledge of As and sub-As is epistemologically justified and A’s and sub-A’s actions are ethically prescribed.

My project is intended as a critical examination of the logic, as well as epistemological and ethical functions, of the binary in Kant’s work. I take Kant’s epistemology and ethics to be founded upon a logical binary that in turn categorizes and classifies people into a value hierarchy. I want to be very clear here: I am not endorsing Kantian thought, but am instead critically analyzing it in order to understand how it works; in order to, in turn, be able to conceptualize new ways of thinking as well as avoid falling back into Eurocentric, masculinist, and heteronormative, ways of thinking.

Kant: The Epistemological and Ethical Functions of the Binary in Kant’s Anthropology and Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals

One can glean Kant’s conceptions of A and non-A from his writings on anthropology and morality. Epistemology and ethics are linked in Kant’s conception of anthropology. Kant states that anthropology, as “knowledge of the world,” aims to know humans as a species “endowed with reason” in order to use such knowledge as a tool for “cultural progress” (7:119). Kant breaks down anthropology into physiological considerations, which address “what nature makes of the human being,” and pragmatic considerations, which address “what he as a free-acting being makes of himself, or can and should make of himself” (ibid.). Pragmatic anthropology is knowledge about what human beings are doing, as well as what they can and ought to do, in order to advance the human species as a whole toward a moral end.

The question here is: What is Kant’s A? A is a starting point. A centers the epistemological and ethical universe. In discussing how to define the character of the human species, Kant states that in order to define “a character of a certain being’s species,” it is necessary to use “one concept with other species known to us” (7:321). Moreover, the “characteristic property” that is different between species is to be “used as a basis for distinguishing them” (ibid.). He then asks: “But if we are comparing a kind of being that we know (A) with another kind of being that we do not know (non-A), how then can one expect or demand to indicate a character of the former when the middle term of the comparison (tertium comparationis) is missing to us?”

The concept that is known to Kant is rationality. Rationality is Kant’s epistemological and ethical central starting point. The human being is “an animal endowed with the capacity of reason” (7:321). The defining difference between humans and animals is rationality. The human is distinguished, differentiated, by three factors: (1) “his technical predisposition for manipulating things (mechanically joined with consciousness,” (2) “his pragmatic predisposition (to use other human beings skillfully for his purposes),” and (3) “by the moral predisposition in his being (to treat himself and others according to the principle of freedom under laws)” (7:322). Kant states that “any one of these three levels can by itself alone already distinguish the human being characteristically as opposed to other inhabitants of the earth” (7:322).

A is rationality. More specifically, A is human rationality. But, human rationality takes three forms, in order of least to most significant for Kant: (1) technical, (2) pragmatic, and (3) moral. A is human rationality at its utmost. Therefore, A is human rationality in its moral form. A is the character of the human species as a whole. A centers the epistemological and ethical universe. Kant states, “the first character of the human being is the capacity as a rational being to obtain a character as such for his own person as well as for the society in which nature as placed him” which “presupposes an already favorable natural predisposition and a tendency to the good in him” because “evil is really without character” (7:329). Human character is the capacity to develop oneself and one’s society in the three forms rationality takes with the end of moral perfection. It is, moreover, a predisposition toward “good.” For Kant, A is human rationality in its moral form and A is good. Conversely non-A is a lack of character, and a lack of character is evil.

Character is important for Kant because “The character of a living being is that which allows its destiny to be cognized in advance” (ibid.). The character of the human species as a whole is rationality and this rationality finds its perfection in the end of morality. Kant takes it as a principle that “nature wants every creature to reach its destiny through the appropriate development of all predispositions of its nature, so that at least the species if not every individual, fulfills nature’s purpose” (ibid.). Kant states, “with the human being only the species, at best, reaches [its destiny]; so that the human race can work its way up to its destiny only through progress in a series of innumerably many generations” (7:324).

Only the human as rational, and only the species as a whole, can bring about the human species’ destiny and it does so through “the development of good out of evil” by its own activity (7:329). This development “can be expected with moral certainty (sufficient certainty for the duty of working toward this end)” (ibid.). For Kant, the human species’ teleological character serves both epistemological and ethical functions. It is that in which nature’s end is known as well as is that which ethically prescribes how to reach that end. It is also that which gives sufficient certainty, epistemological justification, for how to reach that end. A, as human rationality, is that which is ethically prescriptive as well as epistemologically justificatory.

However, there is another level to Kant’s schema: the character of individuals. The character of each individual being is also that which will allow its destiny to be cognized in advance. The characters of individuals, for Kant, are necessarily linked to the character of their human group, and the character of the human group is necessarily linked to the group’s physical, sexual, racial, and ethnic differences.[1] As Kant’s concern is with the human species as a whole, he finds it necessary to begin with general knowledge of the whole. The general knowledge he is working with is the concept of A. General knowledge as the concept of A, for Kant, serves as the method for ordering local knowledge, i.e. the specificities and differences between human groups (7:120).

Kant states that nature is arranged according to an idea, an end, a destiny, which human beings are meant to fulfill through progress toward that end (8:181-8:182). According to Kant, specificities and differences in human groups are naturally due to each having their own “infinitely different ends” that in turn “develop the fitness to fewer but more essential ends” (italics mine, 8:166).[2] Nature does nothing in vain, for Kant. Human groups’ differences are, for him, what is predestined by nature as what is required for the ultimate end of nature. For example, in the case of the sexual difference between white men and white women, Kant states that, “what nature’s end was in establishing woman kind” could be used to “indicate the principle for characterizing woman – a principle which does not depend on our choice but on a higher purpose for the human race” (7:305-7:306). He continues, woman’s “ends are: (1) the preservation of the species, (2) the cultivation of society and its refinement by womankind” (7:306).

What I want to suggest is that Kant is operating under a conception of A and non-A where everything in between A and non-A becomes hierarchically ordered according to the three forms rationality takes. This is Kant’s great chain of being. A, for Kant, is the perfection of human rationality in moral form. Non-A is the complete lack of human character, a complete lack of rationality. In between there is a gradation of sub-A depending on what extent the group character is (1) technical, (2) pragmatic, (3) moral.[3] The ultimate end of nature is the moral. The technical and pragmatic are different ends that develop the fitness to the fewer but more essential moral end.

No human group has reached absolute A-ness. However, some human groups are more predisposed by nature, according to Kant, to be able to progress toward that end, and as such, these groups embody the potentiality for A. Other human groups are predisposed by nature to be sub-A and reach their fulfillment as pragmatic beings, while other human groups are predisposed to be sub-A technical beings. The less each group displays these forms of rationality, the closer they are defined by Kant as non-A. For Kant, while non-A is an absolute lack to which no sub-A can be, some groups are much closer to this absolute lack than others. As noted above, any one of these three forms of rationality make individuals “human” in the sense that they are rational. However, Kant does not consider all forms of rationality as equal. Only the group that has the potentiality for A is “fully human”; sub-As are more or less “human” and, according to Kant, are predisposed by nature to always be.[4] Moreover, Kant considers progression toward the end of nature as requiring actively developing one’s rationality. Therefore, some groups whom Kant considers as not developing their predisposed rational capacities are placed lower in the hierarchy closer to non-A status.

Now, to be clear, there is a distinction here between the moral and ethical. Kant states that moral philosophy cannot be completely separated from the empirical because it concerns “laws of the human being’s will insofar as it is affected by nature,” “laws in accordance with which everything ought to happen, while still taking into account the conditions under which it very often does not happen” (4:387-4:388). Ethics has an empirical aspect termed “practical anthropology” and a rational aspect termed “morals” (4:388). Morals, under the rational aspect, must be, according to Kant, completely unmixed with empirical particularities; they must be deduced from pure reason based on a “universal concept of a rational being” and must “hold for every rational being” (4:412). However, ethics also has an empirical aspect, practical anthropology. Under this aspect, the “whole of morals” “needs anthropology for its application to human beings” (4:412).

For Kant, the moral is rational and absolute. But, the moral is only one part of the ethical. The other part of the ethical is practical anthropology, and this is particular. The group character determines whether one can be moral. According to Kant, if one’s group character is such that the ends that nature has predestined it for are merely technical, then one cannot ever be moral. But, one can be ethical if one fulfills their technical group character as predestined by nature. Moreover, according to Kant’s schema, the ends of nature give one epistemological justification for the ordering of the hierarchy. For Kant, one need not examine further than the human group’s character for epistemological justification for the group’s sub-A status.

Foucault and Kant: Critique of Critique and the Binary

In this section I explore how the binary in Kant’s schema functions in relation to his four questions of philosophy: What can I know? What ought I do? What may I hope? What is “man”?[5] All four of these questions are bound up in the binary and its subsequent proliferation, ordering, and classification of a gradation of sub-As. My examination will follow from Amy Allen’s reading of Foucault’s reading of Kant. Allen argues against the idea that Foucault “has two Kants,” one that he is highly critical of in The Order of Things, and another that he is a proponent of in Introduction to Kant’s Anthropology and the lecture “What is Critique.”[6] Allen argues that Foucault’s reading of Kant is consistent across texts in that at its core Foucault’s project aims to critique the knowing subject.[7] Foucault conceives of Kant as critiquing the knowing subject, but not going far enough in his critique. Foucault, thus, offers a “critique of critique,” that is, an “interrogation of the conditions of possibility of subjectivity itself.”[8]

What can I know? This is an epistemological question of who the knowing subject is as well as the knowing subject’s ability to know the limits of knowledge. Foucault credits Kant with initiating this critique by posing the question in relation to enlightenment as: “do you know up to what point you can know?”[9] In Foucault’s modern episteme, where a single “corporeal gaze” relentlessly orders and classifies objects of knowledge into a coherent totalized structure of knowledge, “man appears in his ambiguous position as an object of knowledge and as a subject of knowledge.”[10] Foucault states, “for anthropology, it is a question of knowing if, on the level of man, a knowledge of finitude can exist, a knowledge sufficiently liberated and grounded so as to be able to think that finitude in it-self – that is, as a form of positivity.”

Anthropology, for Foucault, is faced with the a priori limits of the knowing subject’s knowledge.[11] Anthropology both solidifies humans into objects of knowledge even as it is concomitantly the knowledge of the knowledge of humans.[12] Anthropology, as knowledge of the knowledge of humans, is capable of interrogating the limitations of the knowing subject.[13] Foucault continues, “The internal structure of Anthropology and the question which secretly animates the book in fact take the same form as critical enquiry itself: it, too, presumes to know the possibilities and the limitations of knowledge; from a position of exteriority, it mimicks, in the gestures of empiricity the movement of critical philosophy; furthermore, what it takes as given seems to be able to function as an a priori.”[14]

If we follow Foucault’s reading, I suggest that this would mean that Kant critiques the knowing subject by questioning who he is as a knower. In Kant’s schema, A is the knowing subject, and Kant is an A. He wants to know the defining characteristic of a knower; the defining characteristic of A. He begins from a known concept that he takes both to be indicative of a knower and universally shared among all human groups, rationality. He then systematically orders and categorizes human groups according to differences in characteristic properties, the three forms of rationality. Kant is trying to know himself as a knower, and in order to do so he defines himself in opposition to others. Foucault states, “From one end of experience to the other, finitude answers itself; it is the identity and the difference of the positivities, and of their foundation, within the figure of the same.”[15]

Confronted with limitations to knowledge, Kant seeks an origin of the same in order to then define differences. All humans are rational, but the differences between himself as A, the ultimate other as non-A, and others as sub-As define who he is as a knowing subject. “Modern reflection,” continues Foucault, “moves towards a certain thought of the Same – in which Difference is the same thing as Identity.”[16] Kant, the knower, becomes A, defined in opposition to the non-knower, non-A, and the proliferation of more or less knowers, sub-As, where all are reduced to the same defining concept, rationality.

What one may hope, then is a question posed to a limited knowing subject. In his limitations as a knowing subject, Kant resorts to the use of teleological principles. Nature, for Kant, does nothing in vain and progresses toward an end goal. The end goal nature progresses toward is the full realization of the moral. Everything in nature, for Kant, is purposely designed as a means or an intermediate end to this ultimate end. What may be hoped for is what one may be reasonably justified in hoping for. Epistemological justification is not separate from teleological principles. One may not have direct access to know via experience what may be hoped for, but one nonetheless is reasonably justified in hoping for it because it fits into an overall coherent conceptual structure. Kant’s use of teleological principles in conjunction with his conception of the binary gives him an overall structure. His overall structure is the framework of general knowledge by which each newly acquired piece of information can be plugged in and made to fit, to cohere, with the overall structure, producing, reproducing, and maintaining the structure.

The other three questions are subsumed in the question of what “man” is. Epistemologically, Kant fails to critique the knowing subject in the sense that he fails to critique his place in the schema. I take it as revealing that Kant mentions David Hume’s claim that nations have no particular characteristic if each individual strives toward developing their own unique character (7:311). Kant’s retort is that the individual predilection to develop one’s own unique character is “precisely the general character of the people to which he himself belongs” (ibid.). Then later, in describing the German character, Kant states, “there is a certain mania for method that allows him to classify other citizens punctiliously […] according to degrees of superiority and order of rank,” to “lay out a ladder between the one who is to rule down to the one who is to be ruled, each rung of which is marked with the degree of reputation proper to it” (7:319). What I find so revelatory is that Kant appears to be asserting that the predilection to hierarchically order and classify, i.e. his entire project in establishing his schema of A, non-A, and sub-As, is the general character of the people to which he belongs.

Philosophy, following Kant, Foucault states, “did not manage to free itself from subjectivity as the fundamental thesis and starting point of enquiry,” and instead “locked itself into subjectivity by conceiving of it as thickened, essentialized, enclosed in the impassable structure ‘menschliches Wesen,’ in which that extenuated truth which is the truth of truth keeps vigil and gathers itself.”[17] In order to answer the question, “What is ‘man’?” Kant establishes himself as the knowing subject imposing order and classification onto others as objects of his teleological gaze. Humans are reduced to objects to be ordered and classified according to the teleological end that coheres with the overall structure of Kant’s gaze. While defining himself against otherness, he nonetheless starts from the position of the knowing subject.

This hierarchical structure both epistemologically defines who humans are as well as ethically prescribes what humans ought to do. The ethical question of what one, the “I” of the knowing subject, ought to do implies another question, namely: Who is the “I”? The ethical stands in direct relation to a conception of who that “I” is. What one is to do is dependent upon who one is. As Foucault states, “it is for the empirical individual who is man, the phenomenon – perhaps even less, the appearance – of an order that now belongs to things themselves and to their interior law.”[18] For Kant, human groups take on an essentialized hierarchical order, an order that is contained within the identity of each human group itself. This identity both epistemologically and ethically defines them.

The centralizing force of this structure is the knowing subject. Foucault continues, “In the middle of them all, compressed within the circle they form, man is designated – more, required – by them” because “man” is “a source of order for the totality they form.”[19] Kant, as the A, is the center, the starting point, from which all order and classification emanates. He is the knowing subject that serves as the principle of coherence to the entire structure. Within this structure, Kant epistemologically and ethically justifies himself as the knowing subject imposing order and classification on humans in order to progress toward the teleological end he utilizes to hold this entire structure together. At the same time, his structure epistemologically and ethically justifies the status of sub-As.

Conclusion

Kant’s hierarchical ordering of human groups along a gradation of sub-A status based on the binary of A and non-A serves both epistemological and ethical functions for him. A is taken as the epistemological and ethical starting point, the center of the epistemological and ethical universe. It is from the position of A, that all sub-As are conceptualized as objects of knowledge and all sub-As’ actions are ethically prescribed. Sub-As are known and sub-As’ actions are ethical only in relation to A; only insofar as sub-As fit into A’s self-referential schema. Foucault’s critique of critique of the binary offers us a way to conceptualize Kant’s critique of the knowing subject. Kant’s critique of the knowing subject, I suggest, sets up and maintains a coherent structure to Kant’s ordered hierarchy. Foucault, despite his critique of critique, actively reproduces the very structure that he is critiquing.

In a longer paper, I would further pursue the epistemological and ethical functions of Kant’s binary, as well as Foucault’s critique of critique of the binary, through Sylvia Wynter’s perspective. Due to space limitations, I will conclude by offering the suggestion that my reading of Kant is compatible with Wynter’s perspective. Wynter, while utilizing Foucault’s work, offers us a further critique of critique. She argues that intellectuals of the modern episteme “continue to articulate, in however radically oppositional a manner, the rules of the social order and its sanctioned theories.”[20] It is no less true today than it was in the classical episteme that “subjects […] normatively [know] Self, Other, as well as their social, physical, and organic worlds, in the adaptively true terms needed for the production and reproduction not only of their then supernaturally legitimated genre of being human, but as well for that of the hierarchical social structures in whose intersubjective field that genre of the human could have alone realized itself.[21] Wynter states, “we continue to know our present order of social reality, and rigorously so, in the adaptive ‘truth-for’ terms needed to conserve our present descriptive statement.”[22]

My suggestion, aligned with Wynter’s perspective, is that Kant’s use of teleological principles, the knowing subject, and the binary are all conservation truths. They are taken as truth because they conserve, produce, and reproduce the coherent structure. Moreover, Foucault, may be radically challenging this structure by challenging the knowing subject. However, as a critique of critique, Foucault is still operating within the same structure, and thus, is adaptively reproducing the structure. Foucault’s critique of the knowing subject is a critique founded in and of the knowing subject as a European, white, man.

 

Works Cited by Immanuel Kant

Kant, Immanuel, “Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View,” in Anthropology, History, and Education: The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant, ed. Günter Zöller and Robert Louden (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2002).

Kant, Immanuel, “Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals,” in Practical Philosophy, trans. and ed. Mary J. Gregor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

Kant, Immanuel, “On the Use of Teleological Principles in Philosophy,” in Anthropology, History, and Education: The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant, ed. Günter Zöller and Robert Louden (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2002).

[1] In this regard, see Kant’s ordering of human groups in both Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View and Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime. Both works are found in Anthropology, History, and Education: The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant, ed. Günter Zöller and Robert Louden (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002). Kant’s claim that the character of the human group, in the case of race, is necessarily linked to physical differences is because he claims that the human group’s character is a product of the geographic natural conditions of their lineage. See also Kant’s Physical Geography in Natural Science: The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant, ed. Eric Watkins (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

[2] The full quote is: “The variety among human beings of the same race is in all likelihood just as purposively supplied in the original phylum in order to ground and subsequently develop the greatest degree of manifoldness for the sake of infinitely different ends, as is the difference of the races, in order to ground and subsequently develop the fitness to fewer but ore essential ends” (8:166).

[3] Cf. Charles W. Mills, “Kant’s Untermenschen,” in Race and Racism in Modern Philosophy, ed. Andrew Valls (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005), pp. 169-193. Mills argues that, in Kant’s work, race is a defining characteristic that creates a group of sub-persons. The argument I offer here is in this vein but differs in that I incorporate the three forms of rationality in order to attempt to account for the gradational aspect of Kant’s hierarchical ordering of sub-As.

[4] In this regard, see Robert B. Louden, Kant’s Impure Ethics: From Rational Beings to Human Beings (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 100-105. Louden disagrees with this claim, arguing that Kant’s teleological development applies to the entirety of all human groups because Kant is a monogenesist and states that the human race as a whole has a tendency toward moral improvement. However, Louden contradicts himself. In discussing how Kant offers a geographical account of natural predispositions, Louden states: “Once such predispositions are developed, they apparently cannot be altered, and a predisposition that was suitable for (e.g.) a warm, southern climate will be unsuitable for a cold, northern one” (p. 100).

I agree with Louden that Kant does claim this. However, these natural predispositions, according to Kant, are what make up the character of the separate human groups. If these predispositions are unable to change, then how are they supposed to develop toward moral improvement? Louden is reading Kant’s statement that “the human race (in its entirety) is continually improving” as a claim that all individuals, of all human groups, are able to continually improve.

The claim that the human species as a whole is progressing toward the moral end is the claim, for Kant, that (1) despite some human groups never being able to achieve the moral end, taken as a whole the human species will progress toward that end, and (2) each individual human group can progress toward the limited end that it is predisposed for, and thus, be useful to the whole human species in reaching the species’ ultimate end. The problem is in the ambiguity of Kant’s use of the word “human.” A human is anyone who is rational in any of the three forms of rationality. But, the most fully human is the person who is rational in all three forms.

[5] Cf. Amy Allen, “Foucault and Enlightenment: A Critical Reappraisal,” in Constellations, vol. 10 no. 2 (2003), pp. 191-92.

[6] Allen, p. 183; Michel Foucault, “What is Critique?” in The Politics of Truth (New York City: Semiotext(e), 1997), pp. 47-48.

[7] Allen, p. 189.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Foucault, “What is Critique?” p. 49.

[10] Michel Foucault, The Order of Things (New York City: Vintage Books, 1994), p. 312.

[11] Michel Foucault, Introduction to Kant’s Anthropology (Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e), 2008), p. 117.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid., pp. 117-18.

[15] Foucault, The Order of Things, p. 315.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Foucault, Introduction to Kant’s Anthropology, p. 123.

[18] Foucault, The Order of Things, p. 313.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Sylvia Wynter, “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation – An Argument,” in The New Centennial Review, vol. 3 no. 3 (2003), p. 271.

[21] Ibid., p. 269.

[22] Ibid., p. 270.

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Foucault, History of Madness Excerpt

Foucault, History of Madness, p. 251:

(1) Behind the calm order of medical analyses a difficult relationship is at work, (2) where historical becoming comes into being: (3) this is the relation between unreason, as the ultimate meaning of madness, and rationality as the form of its truth.

Published in 1961, History of Madness is Foucault’s early archaeological examination of the normative structures operative within modern society in regard to madness. This particular passage exemplifies the archaeological quality of Foucault’s work in that the passage refers to the chaos subsumed within the discursive and normative structures that seek to control such chaos through a violent imposition of form.

The sentence has three parts; part two amplifies part one, and part three amplifies parts one and two. The amplification serves to delimit the conceptual parameters of the subject matter; it gives the subject matter structure and in doing so mimics the very discursive structures which shape subjectivity that Foucault critiques.

The active relation between unreason and rationality remains operative despite attempts by medical analyses to impose a passive relationship (as correlation) between the two through taxonomic organization and classification. “Behind” in this passage conveys the image of an eclipse where what is veiled in shadows remains operative; a “behind” that Foucault seeks to excavate.

Interestingly, the term “historical becoming” taken on its own conveys a process of continuous movement in that the historical becomes; it is an active verb. However, put in conjunction with the verb “comes” and the noun “being,” “historical becoming” is transformed into a noun. The sentence itself transforms a verb into a noun and, concomitantly, conceptually transforms a process of continuous movement into a solidified state of being; again, replicating the discursive construction of subjectivity.

Underneath the order of taxonomic classification, an order that seeks to impose form onto the chaos and solidify it into an essential truth, an active and dynamic relation (effect and reaction of each on the other) exists between unreason and rationality. The juxtaposition of unreason and rationality highlights the active yet difficult relation between the two. Rationality, with its discursive structures of thought, is sought as a way to control the chaos; to structure unreason through prescribing its essential truth using the structures of rationality itself. Rationality imposes form on unreason in order to make unreason sensible to rationality. In its violent attempts at control, rationality seeks to calm the disquiet of unreason.

In regard to Foucault’s larger project, this passage all at once excavates, critiques, and yet mimics the subsumed discursive structures that give rise to normative structures and shape modern subjectivity; activities and themes that occur throughout his following works. In all, the effect of the passage is quite disquieting. It seems impossibly to disrupt yet re-inscribe subjectivity; it is chaos and order, active and passive, becoming and being impossibly intertwined.

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 solipsism 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.

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

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

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

Existential Freedom and Existential Morality

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

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

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

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

Myth-making and Woman’s Situation

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

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

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

The Myth of Woman as Nature – Mother

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

The Myth of Woman as Nature – Spouse

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

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

 

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

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

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

The Myth of Woman as Nature – Life and Death

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

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

 

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

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

Conclusion: Myth-making and Existential Morality

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

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

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

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

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

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

[2] Ibid. p. 16

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

[4] Ibid. p. 47

[5] Ibid. p. 16

[6] Ibid. p. 159

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid,

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid. p. 160

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid. p. 16

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid. p. 6

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

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

[21] Ibid. p. 16

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid. p. 161

[24] Ibid.

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

[26] Ibid. p. 162

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid. pp. 162-63

[31] Ibid. p. 163

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid. p. 167

[36] Ibid. pp. 166-67

[37] Ibid. p. 167

[38] Ibid. p. 174

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid. pp. 174-75

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

[42] Ibid. p. 176

[43] Ibid. p. 180

[44] Ibid. p. 180

[45] Ibid.

[46] Ibid. pp. 178-79

[47] Ibid. p. 183

Sara Ahmed’s Feminist Attachment to Anger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robin James’s Resilience & Melancholy: Pop Music, Feminism, Neoliberalism, Chapter 2, “Into the Death”

 

Resilience within neoliberalism is defined as the ability to adapt to hardships, traumas, and oppression; it is a fluid movement through hardships in which the raw material of damage is recycled into resources as further investment into the perpetual transformation of resources into wealth. It is an ideology of turning lemons into lemonade, turning that lemonade into a retail chain store, then turning that retail chain store into a corporate conglomerate that reaches all areas of the world through its monopolistic production and distribution of all genetically modified, yellow #5, liquid-ish, bitter flavored saccharine foodstuffs.

Resilience on a social level redistributes life and death analogous to capitalism’s redistribution of wealth; the benefits produced from those struggling to survive are redistributed to those higher on the hierarchy; to those deemed by the white supremacist neoliberal norm as beneficial to the hegemonic system. Lives deemed viable to the hegemonic system are invested in. They are distributed the means of resiliently transforming themselves; they are distributed the means of resilience, namely the intensification and precarity of damage as well as the resources to transform that damage. Lives that are deemed to be not viable to the hegemonic system, are divested; while these lives are distributed precarity, they are not distributed the means of resilience. Instead their lives and labor provide the economic, social, and political capital that is invested into the lives viable to the system. Neoliberal biopolitical management is all about the categorization and management of life and death in order to sustain the viability of the hegemonic system. In chapter 2, “Into Death,” James asks: What if we disrupted the viability of the system by going into death? Death is defined as “living a supposedly unviable life, a life that isn’t profitable for MRWaSP, a life whose support diminishes the resilience of other, more elite groups” (p. 49).

James begins by elaborating on a distinction between death as negation and death as divestment. The Sex Pistol’s anarchic response to liberalism functioned as a negation through challenging modernity’s insistence on arche, on a teleological, future-oriented, progressive development. The song’s structure is an ordered teleological progression that shifts at the end with a negation of its origination; a shift that is reflected in the lyrical claim: “no future” (p. 53). But, death as queer negation of futurity would sound more like what Lee Edelman describes as “meaningless repetition, ‘random signals,’ white noise, or ‘electronic buzzing’”; these sounds do not reproduce and thus truly negate a teleological progression into the future (p. 53-54) (see/hear, The Normal, “Warm Leatherette”). Tricia Rose and James Snead also distinguish between the “progression and regression” or “accumulation and growth” within European/Western music and the “circulation, equilibrium,” and cyclical repetition in the music of black cultures (p. 54) (see/hear The Winstons, “Amen, Brother”) (perhaps also, X-Ray Spex, “Identity”). Negation and repetition, as statements of anti-futurity, “are counter-hegemonic responses to a specific white supremacist, heteronormative arche, one premised on teleological development, accumulation, and growth,” an arche that is foundational to liberal capitalism (p. 55). However, neoliberalism appropriates such negation as the raw material damage to be put in service of privileged groups and their resilient transformations.

Whereas death as a negation of the future serves as a response to liberal hegemonic ideologies, neoliberalism requires a different response, namely “biopolitical divestment” (p. 57). For James, Atari Teenage Riot’s response is to rework the anti-future response to liberal teleological and progressive development by repurposing the techniques of cutting, looping, and repetition in order to “de-functionalize the harmony” of progression (p. 58). The death as negation response was a critical response to a liberal subject who was “concerned with maintaining its integrity as it progresses through the future” and with the “authenticity of experience” (p. 59). However, the neoliberal subject is “concerned with optimizing its life” and “intensity of experience” (ibid.). ATR’s response is a critique of the neoliberal subject showing that the “‘life’ they invest in and administer is bankrupt” because they are playing a game where they have been biopolitically managed through the use of data, stuck in feedback loops of damage leading to the perpetuity of either resilient transformation or precarious bare life; a game with no chance of winning (p. 59-60). Death as divestment is the MRWaSP’s response to the neoliberal subject who “is allowed to play” but is denied the opportunities and resources to flourish and win because their lives have been deemed unviable to the hegemonic system (p. 61). James states:

Scraping by, barely surviving, unable to profit from the surplus value one’s labor generates (e.g., by storing up the ‘life’ or ‘credit’ one needs to win a video game), “bare life” is the other side of resilience discourse. Biopolitical death isn’t the negation of life, but insufficient resilience. Understood through the lens of resilience discourse, biopolitical death is not a subtraction, opposition to, or rejection of life, but an investment in “unviable” practices, practices that may help you survive, but won’t help you win. Just as resilience intensifies “life,” death intensifies “unviability.” Queerness and blackness are carriers of biopolitical death because this death is the fate of what or whomever was too racially and sexually “unruly” (to use philosopher Falguni Sheth’s term) to reproduce and support post-racial, post-feminist, “homonational” society. Instead of constitutively excluding impurities, MRWaSP maintains the ideal balance of diverse elements by divesting itself of those who cannot successfully keep up with the demands of modern life. Live in a way that doesn’t upset this balance, or we’ll leave you to die. In MRWaSP, death is biopolitical. (pp. 62-63)

For James, ATR’s music does not allow for the resilient recycling of damage. Instead, it intensifies noise to the point of “overdrive and breakdown” causing an affective response of precarity that prevents the hegemony and individual from being able to use that damage to invest in themselves (pp. 63-64). In this way ATR’s music is an expression and critique of biopolitical death that causes resilience to “invest in death rather than (normal) life” (p. 64). While the anarchy of death as negation could serve as an effective strategy against liberalism, neoliberalism incorporates such a strategy into its deregulated biopolitical management of life and death as part and parcel for its resilient recycling of damage. Correlatively, the excessively high or low intensities as well as the distortion of linear temporal progression – such as in drug use and in the use of MIDI’s in musical compositions – are also not effective critical responses to neoliberalism. Such attempts at “deterritorializations” are “faux subversions” because their effects are within relative and finite limits that the neoliberal biopolitical management of life and death has accounted for (pp. 64-65). One may think that they are challenging the hegemony, but they really are not transgressing the limits of the hegemony. Such attempts at excessiveness are actually “the very measure of a healthy deregulated economy (of capital, of desire) in which rigidly controlled background conditions generate increasingly eccentric foreground events” (p. 68).

ATR’s response is a musical and political riot, and that riot is one in which the order and discipline of neoliberal biopolitical management is taken to its extreme and turned against itself. James states:

Rioting isn’t anarchy, it’s biopolitical management for counter-hegemonic ends. ATR takes the tools biopolitical neoliberalism uses to invest in life, like algorithms (statistical data, synthesizer patches), and applies them instead to death— that is, to processes that reduce the viability of MRWaSP capitalism. It carefully, microscopically, and vigilantly intensifies death. So, for example, while neoliberal management strategies invest in promoting flexibility and adaptability, riotous, queer management strategies invest in the opposite— stringent, uncompromising order. It seems counterintuitive to say that stringent order is the way to contest social control. That’s because classical liberalism treats anarchy and negation as remedies to the hegemonic insistence on order and discipline. However, resilience discourse normalizes disorder; anarchy and negation are the means of capitalist production and MRWaSP reproduction. (p. 70)

Then:

Neoliberalism uses biopolitical management to optimize flexibility. Precise, exact quantization can undermine this “one requirement.” The key is to craft a texture that’s so rigid it won’t shatter and produce damage that can be plugged back into resilience circuits. This rigidity will confuse ears tuned to expect flexibility, distortion, and aion-like deterritorialization. That’s why it sounds riotous. (p. 71) (see/hear Atari Teenage Riot, “Into the Death”)

For James, ATR’s music riots. It combines methods of cutting, looping, and repetition with precisely measured meter. The effect is hyper-organized, and this “hyper-quantization and intensification” serves as a “counter-arche” that intensifies biopolitical death (p. 71-72). While neoliberalism distributes privilege and death in order to intensify the lives the hegemony has deemed viable to the system, the hyper-organized response intensifies bare life and plugs this intensity into death (p. 73). In other words, instead of playing the game of plugging resilience capital back into the system as a perpetual investment for ever expanding wealth, one plugs those resources into bare life, the unviable life, death (pp. 73-74). The intensification of bare life, as opposed to the intensification of damage and resilience, is in this sense riotous. James states: “If death is something controlled in order to better manage life, then inhabiting death queerly will fuck neoliberal hegemony’s algorithms, fuck up its management of life” (p. 74) If some must be divested from in order to invest in others, then investing in the divested instead of the invested will disrupt this system and refuse the system the optimal means of “maximizing hegemonic relations of privilege and oppression” (p. 74). Consider here the neoliberal claims that a certain amount of unemployment is good for the economy, that by investing in the rich the wealth will trickle down, or that mass consumerism is the key to an economy that works for everyone. Each of these claims can be read through James’s perspective as demonstrating how some lives serve as the capital for others. James’s response is to invest in bare life excessively – which means to invest in employment for everyone, disinvest the rich, and to refuse mass consumerism.

James’s argument points out something I would like to consider in relation to hegemony and anarchy. James states that anarchy was a counter-hegemonic response to liberalism, but because neoliberalism appropriates and incorporates anarchy into its method of biopolitical management, anarchy only fuels the hegemonic neoliberal system. But, what I find interesting is that the neoliberal system James describes is two tiered; there is the authoritarian overarching background structure of neoliberalism that is ordered and disciplined, but there is also the deregulated foreground structure. James is saying that by hyper-organizing the deregulated foreground one can disrupt the ordered and disciplined overarching background. While James states this is not necessarily anarchy, I question whether it is another form of anarchy; a form of anarchy that targets the overarching background instead of the foreground. James seems to conceive of anarchy as chaos. But, if anarchy is conceived of as a lack of an authoritarian overarching background structure (i.e. a structure that places ultimate rule in one overarching authority, in whatever form that authority may take – one person, one group of people, one economic system), then by utilizing a method of hyper-organization that makes the authoritarian overarching background structure impossible, one is utilizing a form of anarchy that is not chaos but organization. In other words, perhaps organization need not be an authoritarian overarching hegemonic structure and anarchy need not be chaos.

Human Modification, Control, and Use of Nonhuman Animals: Human and Nonhuman Animal Relations in Jurassic World

Jurassic World has reached audiences in more than 70 countries and has grossed more than $1.6 billion dollars in revenue worldwide (IMDb). The impact of the movie’s sociological message is potentially significant due to the extent of the movie’s worldwide viewership. This paper is a content analysis of the movie Jurassic World. The paper begins with a brief summary of the movie’s storyline. The paper then analyzes the main theme of the movie, namely the relationship between human and nonhuman animals. Next, the paper analyzes the Mercedes-Benz and Samsung product placements in the movie. It is argued that the product placements and theme of the movie convey a very specific message about the relationship between human and nonhuman animals. It is argued that the message of the movie overall is, even as humans are at the top of the natural hierarchy, in order for humans to effectively modify, control, and use nonhuman animals, humans need to be knowledgeable about nonhuman animals as well as the limits of humans’ abilities to modify, control, and use nonhuman animals. As a sociological analysis, this paper only focuses on a description of the message conveyed in the movie, and therefore, it does not make any claims in regard to the morality of the message.

Jurassic World is a dinosaur theme park located on Isla Nublar. The entire tropical island is a zoo and amusement park where dinosaurs are genetically modified, cloned, and held in captivity in order to be used for educational and entertainment purposes. One of the main protagonists of the movie is Claire, the park’s Operations Manager and aunt of Gray and Zach, brothers who travel to the island in order to visit Claire. Another protagonist is Owen, an ex-Navy service member and lead trainer of a pack of Velociraptors named Blue, Charlie, Echo, and Delta. Much of the movie consists of the various protagonists fleeing from numerous dinosaurs, including the main nonhuman animal antagonist, an escaped Indominus-rex. Interspersed between the flight scenes, the audience finds Owen in conflict with the main human antagonist Hoskins, Head of Security for InGen who wants to weaponize the trained Velociraptors. Owen, who trains the Velociraptors for human educational and entertainment purposes, finds it objectionable that Hoskins wants to train them to be weapons of war. When the Indominus-rex escapes, kills several park employees, and in the process releases other dinosaurs who then proceed to destroy the park and attack and kill park visitors, Hoskins convinces Owen to use the Velociraptors to hunt the Indominus-rex.

The summary highlights the main theme of the movie, namely the relationship between human and nonhuman animals. Claire, Owen, and Hoskins each portray different relationships to the dinosaurs. Claire views the dinosaurs as commodities and “assets.” In a scene in the park’s control room, Claire is speaking with Lowery (control room employee). Claire states she “closed the deal” and introduces the movie audience to the Indominus-rex by saying “Verizon Wireless presents Indominus-rex.” Lowery states, “That is so terrible. Why not just go the distance, Claire, and just let these corporations name the dinosaurs.” When Claire questions Lowery about relocating more quickly a tranquilized Pachyderm, Lowery asks Claire, “why don’t we show a little sympathy? I mean, you do understand these are actual animals, right?” Claire ignores the question. Later, Claire and Masrani (park founder and CEO) are flying over the park in a helicopter when Masrani asks if the dinosaurs are happy. Claire states that they have no way to measure the dinosaurs’ emotional well-being. Masrani responds that you can see it in their eyes.

Claire views the dinosaurs as essentially unknowable “assets” to be controlled for human profit while Owen opposes controlling the dinosaurs as commodities and views the dinosaurs as living beings that can be known and trained. In one scene, Claire asks Owen to check the Indominus-rex’s containment area for vulnerabilities because he is “able to control the Raptors.” Owen responds, “It’s all about control with you. I don’t control the Raptors. It’s a relationship. It’s based on mutual respect.” The discussion becomes diverted. Claire brings it back to the issue of the Indominus-rex, asking “Can we just focus on the asset, please?” Owen responds, “The asset? […] It’s probably easier to pretend these animals are just numbers on a spreadsheet. But they’re not. They’re alive. […] You might have made them in a test tube, but they don’t know that.” Owen states what the dinosaurs know are their natural instincts, implying humans must understand the dinosaurs’ instincts in order to respect the dinosaurs.

The relationship between human and nonhuman animals based on respect as knowledge appears again in a later scene when Claire and Owen are speaking about the Indominus-rex’s genetically modified creation. Claire states the corporation needed to increase the “wow factor” with the creation of a new, more dangerous, dinosaur. Owen responds the corporation made a new dinosaur, “but you don’t even know what it is?” Owen asserts all the Indominus-rex knows is a small enclosed area and “animals raised in isolation are not always the most functional.” Owen concedes that the Velociraptors are born in captivity, but they are siblings who learn social skills and are bonded to him at birth, which creates a relationship of trust. Owen states the “Only positive relationship this animal has is with that crane” as the Indominus-rex is fed a decapitated and skinned dead cow dropped from a crane. Claire’s character portrays the idea that nonhuman animals are merely commodities to be modified, controlled, and used by humans for profit. Owen’s character disagrees with the modification of nonhuman animals when humans do not understand what they are doing. His character asserts nonhuman animals can be trained to be of use to humans for education and entertainment, but humans must be knowledgeable of nonhuman animals’ natural instincts.

Hoskins’s character portrays another type of relationship between human and nonhuman animals. Hoskins states the dinosaurs have instincts that can be harnessed as weapons of war. Owen asks, “What if they decide they wanna be in control?” Hoskins responds, “Well, then we remind them who is.” Owen states to Hoskins, “You come here and you don’t learn anything about these animals except what you want to know. You made them, and now you think you own them.” Hoskins responds, “We do own them. Extinct animals have no rights.” Owen states, “They’re not extinct anymore.” Hoskins responds, “Exactly. We’re sitting on a goldmine. And Masrani is using it to stock a petting zoo.” Owen states, “He just wants to teach people some humility. He doesn’t make weapons.” Like Owen, Hoskins seeks to know and train to the dinosaurs’ instincts, but similar to Claire he seeks to control and use the dinosaurs as a means to human ends through selective modification and without regard to gaining fuller knowledge of the dinosaurs.

Hoskins’s character also portrays the relationship between human and nonhuman animals by equating nonhuman animals with nature. In the same scene, Hoskins states, “Every living thing in this jungle is trying to murder the other. Mother Nature’s way of testing her creations. Refining the pecking order. War is a struggle. Struggle breeds greatness.” In this quote, Hoskins’s character is portraying the idea that nonhuman animals are of nature, nature is inherently violent, and humans must control the violence by being violent in order for humans to remain at the top of the hierarchy. When Hoskins speaks of his bond with a wolf pup he raised, he views himself as able to control the pup and thus as superior to it. Opposed to Hoskins, Owen’s character asserts dinosaurs should not be used in war because they cannot be fully controlled and could unpredictably turn on their handlers. The following scene shows Owen almost being eaten by the Velociraptors he was previously training and feeding after racing into the Velociraptors’ cage in order to save an employee who had fallen in.

All of the characters in the movie portray humans as being at the top of the natural hierarchy, even though nonhuman animals display human-like qualities. The disagreement between the characters is over the proper way humans are to relate to the nonhuman animals below them. In a scene in the Indominus-rex’s confinement area, Owen observes how the dinosaur had marked up a wall in order to make them think the dinosaur had escaped. Claire states, “We are talking about an animal here.” Owen responds, “A highly intelligent animal.” Later, park staff discover the Indominus-rex had clawed out the tracking device that had been surgically inserted into the dinosaur’s body. The dinosaur “remembered” where the device was inserted. Owen states the dinosaur “is learning where she fits into the food chain,” and then says the dinosaur should be killed immediately because the dinosaur is dangerous to humans. Later the Velociraptors are described as “communicating” with the Indominus-rex. The dinosaurs are portrayed as displaying characteristics traditionally associated with humans, namely intelligence, subjective remembrance, and communication. In another scene, Masrani is speaking with Wu, the lead scientist who purposely created the dinosaur with “exaggerated predator traits.” Wu recalls that Masrani wanted a “bigger” and “scarier” dinosaur with “more teeth.” Masrani responds, “I didn’t want a monster.” Wu states, “Monster is a relative term. To a canary, a cat is a monster. We are just used to being the cat.”

All of these examples imply that no matter what level of intelligence, subjectivity, or communicative ability a nonhuman animal may have, humans are at the top of the hierarchy and are justified in modifying nonhuman animals so as to use nonhuman animals for human ends. However, the movie also contains a cautionary message that humans can be knocked off the top of the hierarchy by their own arrogance and ignorance. Owen’s character repeatedly criticized the other characters for modifying nonhuman animals’ physical traits through genetic modification and their psychological traits through lack of understanding and neglect of their instincts. However, he did so only to the extent that humans were arrogant and ignorant of their ability to control these modifications. In the scene noted above, Owen stated Masrani wanted humans to learn humility. Owen’s character implies that humans cannot effectively control nonhuman animals if humans are arrogant toward and ignorant of nonhuman animals. Owen’s character had knowledge of the Velociraptor’s instincts and modified the Velociraptors’ instincts through training. While his character argued against controlling the dinosaurs, he himself sought to control them in the sense of modifying and using the dinosaurs for human ends.

While his character is portrayed as the nonhuman animal protector, such as in a scene where he comforts a dying Brontosaurus, he still assumes a position of superiority and seeks to control the pack of Velociraptors. Hoskins and Owen use the Velociraptors to hunt and kill the Indominus-rex. When Owen uses the Indominus-rex’s scent for the Velociraptors to track down the nonhuman animal antagonist it is because the Velociraptors’ instincts were trained and modified through a “hide and seek” style game Owen had devised. In a later scene, Owen rides a motorcycle with the pack of Velociraptors, as if he is a part of the pack. When the Velociraptors break away from the humans and begin to follow the Indominus-rex, Owen states the Velociraptors “have a new alpha,” implying he was the alpha previously in control of the pack. Later when Owen is surrounded by the Velociraptors, he calms Blue and removes a device from the dinosaur’s head. Blue then communicates with the Indominus-rex and the Velociraptors defend Owen, Claire, Gray, and Zach from the Indominus-rex. The message is that humans can modify, control, and use nonhuman animals for human ends as long as humans are not arrogant and ignorant of the limits of their abilities to do so.

The movie implies that if humans try to arrogantly and ignorantly modify, control, and use nonhuman animals, then the consequences will be disastrous. At the end of the movie, the Tyrannosaurus-rex and Indominus-rex tear through the park during their climatic fight scene. By the time the Mosasaurus comes out of the water and eats the Indominus-rex, the park is nearly destroyed and an uncountable number of humans have been killed. The Tyrannosaurus-rex walks onto a helipad as the dinosaurs reclaim the park from the fleeing humans. The overall message of the movie is, even as humans are at the top of the natural hierarchy, in order for humans to effectively modify, control, and use nonhuman animals, humans need to be knowledgeable about nonhuman animals as well as the limits of humans’ abilities to modify, control, and use nonhuman animals.

Mercedes-Benz and Samsung product placements enhance this message. Claire drives a silver Mercedes-Benz throughout the movie, rushing from one area of the park to the other along island dirt roads. Many of the park vehicles are Mercedes-Benz 4x4s. The Mercedes-Benz logo is prominently displayed, up-close and center screen, several times in the movie. The Samsung logo is also clearly displayed in an early scene when Claire is talking on her Samsung cell phone to her sister about her nephews while driving. Claire is on her cell phone throughout the movie. She uses her phone to alert the park staff of the Indominus-rex’s escape, to ask her assistant to find her nephews and get them to safety, and to call for a helicopter to rescue her and her nephews as they flee from the Velociraptors in her Mercedes-Benz. All of the television monitors in the park’s genetic modification and cloning lab, education center, control room, and surveillance stations are Samsung. All of these products are displayed as being useful to humans in gaining knowledge about, modifying, and escaping from the dinosaurs. Claire is often seen using these technologies in these regards. These product placements not only support the theme that humans are hierarchically superior to nonhuman animals, but also the message that humans can use these products to learn about, modify, and protect themselves from nonhuman animals, thus giving humans a level of control over nonhuman animals.

In conclusion, this paper has argued that the Mercedes-Benz and Samsung product placements along with the theme of human superiority over nonhuman animals in Jurassic World convey a very specific message about the relationship between human and nonhuman animals. The human protagonists and antagonist all imply that humans are hierarchically superior to nonhuman animals. The hero of the movie exemplifies the message that humans can effectively modify, control, and use nonhuman animals for human ends so long as humans are not arrogant and ignorant in doing so. The heroine of the movie uses technologies displayed in product placements throughout the movie in order to learn, modify, and escape from nonhuman animals. Together the hero and heroine convey the sociological message that, even as humans are at the top of the natural hierarchy, in order for humans to effectively modify, control, and use nonhuman animals, humans need to be knowledgeable about nonhuman animals as well as the limits of humans’ abilities to modify, control, and use nonhuman animals.

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

Introduction

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.

Conclusion

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, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/negritude/

[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