Systemic Silencing and Deliberative Democracy

Deliberative democratic theory emphasizes the need for a deliberating public in order to secure a strong democracy. In this vein, theorists seek to explore and establish methods of promoting deliberation. A significant amount of attention has been paid to understanding what institutional procedures and processes would be required in order for public deliberation to most successfully occur. For this paper, I seek to offer a suggestion in this regard. I suggest that deliberative democratic theory ought to further explore the issue of systemic silencing. Deliberation requires listening to and understanding fellow deliberators. Thus far, the ways in which people fail to listen to and understand each other have not been thoroughly explored.[1] I respond to the dearth of theoretical work on this issue by suggesting that an exploration of how speech is silenced could potentially offer significant insights into how to promote deliberation. I begin by considering what it means to communicate and detailing the importance of communication in deliberative democracy. Next, I examine further what it means to listen and understand, as well as the harms failures in communication cause deliberation. I conclude with considering how attention to the issue of silencing, as a failure in communication in which one is either not listened to or not understood, could be beneficial for promoting deliberation.

Deliberative Democratic Theory and Communication

I would like to begin by detailing the importance of communication in deliberative democracy. There is an ontological presupposition subsumed in deliberative democratic theory, namely, that we, human beings, exist as communicative beings. To be a communicative being is to necessarily be dependent upon and inextricably linked with other communicative beings. Hannah Arendt follows Aristotle in distinguishing the central activities of human political existence as action and speech.[2] Human beings are uniquely distinct forms of life because each individual is able to communicate their own individual abstract thought in relation to others who share in a common communicative capacity. Arendt states, “Speech and action reveal this unique distinctness” in that “Through them, men distinguish themselves instead of being merely distinct; they are modes in which human beings appear to each other, not indeed as physical objects, but qua men [sic].”[3] “In acting and speaking,” she states, humans “show who they are, reveal actively their unique personal identities and thus make their appearance in the human world.”[4]

The communicative capacity that allows humans to disclose themselves also gives them their political nature. Human beings are beings who live together and reveal themselves within a web of already existing human material and psychical relations.[5] This is the situation in which we exist. To exist politically is to publicly decide through persuasion, as opposed to violence, what course of action the community ought to take.[6] Speech is a means of making sense of the common situation in which we exist together, and thus the paramount concern of the citizenry ought to be to talk with each other.[7] What is of importance to Arendt is preserving a public space in which human beings, viewing each other as equals, can come together to speak and act. Human beings are a plurality of uniquely distinct beings who necessarily exist together. Communication in the public realm links in understanding individuals who are separated by differences so as to publicly determine how to resolve the community’s problems.

Communication is crucial for a strong democracy. Benjamin Barber defines strong democracy as “politics in the participatory mode where conflict is resolved in the absence of an independent ground through a participatory process of ongoing, proximate self-legislation and the creation of a political community capable of transforming dependent, private individuals into free citizens and partial and private interests into public goods.”[8] Humans, in their plurality, have no independent value as a ground to judge what they ought to do. Politics is the means of deciding what humans ought to do at the level of the community. Communication is necessary for politics; it is active and ongoing. Barber’s hallmarks of an active and ongoing strong democracy, “common deliberation, common decision, and common work,” are all communicative.[9] Within a diverse citizenry where individuals hold diverging perspectives, the link between deliberating individuals is formed through their common political activity, transforming the diverse citizenry into a community.[10] The common political activity is communicative.

Communication is crucial for deliberative democracy, and to communicate requires understanding. Jürgen Habermas offers a discursive procedure for political action that takes seriously this relation between political action and speech. He defines communicative interactions as “when the participants coordinate their plans of action consensually, with the agreement reached at any point being evaluated in terms of the intersubjective recognition of validity claims.”[11] Communicative interactions appeal to validity claims; claims of objective truth, claims of normative rightness, or claims to an individual’s own subjective sincerity.[12] Claims to normative rightness, claims about what the community ought to do, are primarily what politics is concerned with. He distinguishes strategic action from communicative action, defining communicative action as when “one actor seeks rationally to motivate another by relying on the illocutionary binding/bonding effect of the offer contained in his [sic] speech.”[13] This is crucial. What Habermas is gesturing toward is how communicative interactions are dependent upon an illocutionary bond; a bond is created due to an intersubjective understanding between the interlocutors that their intended action is to rationally motivate each other, not strategically manipulate each other.

Habermas is asserting that communicative action has the intention of rationally motivating one’s interlocutors, as opposed to manipulating them for one’s own interests, and understanding this intent creates a bond between the interlocutors. Thus, Habermas recognizes the interrelationality of communicative political action; it is cooperative and intersubjective where individuals are linked through understanding. However, I suggest that this understanding is not merely the understanding that one’s intention is communicative, as opposed to strategic. Implicit in understanding that one’s intention is communicative is also an appeal to understanding the situated position, the speaker’s socio-political and psychical position, that is being communicated. It is to understand the speaker’s validity claims as well as the socio-political and psychical position of the speaker making these claims.

One is both an individual and a member of the community. Each member is equally afforded the right to communicate, to offer validity claims. However, Habermas asserts that one’s validity claims must be universalizable, which leads to the sole principle for a discursive process; “Only those norms can claim to be valid that meet (or could meet) with the approval of all affected in their capacity as participants in a practical discourse.”[14] It is the verb “affected” in this principle that implies understanding; it implies understanding the position of others. One must understand another’s socio-political and psychical position in order to understand if and how the person will be affected by a particular decision.

Such understanding is also implied in the procedural rules entailed in this principle for the discursive process: 1) “Every subject with the competence to speak and act is allowed to take part in a discourse,” 2) “Everyone is allowed to question any assertion whatever,” 3) “Everyone is allowed to introduce any assertion whatever into the discourse,” 4) “Everyone is allowed to express [their] attitudes, desires, and needs,” 5) “No speaker may be prevented, by internal or external coercion, from exercising [their] rights as” noted in 1-4.[15] People must be equally allowed to speak and act in this process. This is robust conception of freedom of speech where speaking is a disclosure by one member of the community of their situated position, linked with the listening and understanding of other members of the community.

Habermas and Arendt align on this point. Appeals to the community must be based on what is common, what is universalizable. Arendt states, “This sensus communis is what judgment appeals to in everyone, and it is this possible appeal that gives judgments their special validity.”[16] In appealing to the community’s common sense, one is communicating one’s own situated position, a situation that is inextricably embedded in the community, after reflecting on and taking into account all others’ situated positions. This is Arendt’s “enlarged mentality,” in which one simultaneously and impartially holds one’s own perspective in mind along with a proliferation of other perspectives.[17] Habermas would agree with Arendt on this point, but would add that such enlarged mentality requires participating in “everyday communication,” which “makes possible a kind of understanding that is based on claims to validity.”[18] Arendt continues, “The it-pleases-or-displeases-me, which as a feeling seems so utterly private and noncommunicative, is actually rooted in this community sense and is therefore open to communication once it has been transformed by reflection, which takes all others and their feelings into account.”[19] Decisions about what the community ought to do are valid only under conditions of communication in which the individual’s disclosure is linked with listening and understanding. That is, when members of the community understand each other’s situated positions and form a common sense.

Political Harms due to Failures in Listening and Understanding

In the previous section, I explored the importance of communication in deliberative democratic theory. It is through communication that an enlarged mentality and a common sense is formed. It is through communication that one appeals to others via validity claims. It is through communication that validity claims are binding; binding the individual with the community and justifying what ought to be done. Communication is not an act performed in isolation. Communication is a public and political act that secures a strong democracy. To communicate is to be both expressive and receptive; to speak and to listen. Communication is an active interrelation. Arendt’s conception of how speech and action allows one to reveal who they are within the public realm points to significant harms to both individuals and the community due to failures in communication. Failures of communication are failures in listening and understanding those with whom we share in community. One such harm is the harm of a loss of reality.

The assurance of reality, of the world and of who we are, can only be obtained through our communication with “others who see what we see and hear what we hear.”[20] The unique distinctness of human beings proliferates a multiplicity of perspectives. This multiplicity of perspectives is necessary for the assurance of reality. The significance of a multiplicity of perspectives is in how diversity is required in order to be assured of what is fundamental; how diversity is required in order for individual existences to converge in a shared reality. Arendt states, “Only where things can be seen by many in a variety of aspects without changing their identity, so that those who are gathered around them know they see sameness in utter diversity, can worldly reality truly and reliably appear.”[21] Enlarged mentality requires listening to and understanding others’ perspectives, which requires understanding their situated positions. With this enlarged mentality, one can appeal to the common sense of the community. Without listening and understanding, humans cannot converge on what is common, nor can they converge on what is real.

Arendt here is hinting at the importance of listening and understanding through explicating the harms to individuals and the community when failures of listening and understanding arise. Arendt links the disclosure of the individual with the witnessing of the disclosure by others. Where individuals either become completely atomized in isolation or homogenously uniform, “they have been deprived of seeing and hearing others, of being seen and being heard by them.”[22] The harm to the community is the end of the common world that grounds reality, where the community “is seen only under one aspect and is permitted to present itself in only one perspective.”[23] What I have in mind here is how knowledge becomes stunted when one’s discursive community is too narrow. One fails to gain insight into the complexities of the socio-political world when one is locked in either their own head or an echo chamber. In both cases, the same perspective is regurgitated over and over again, in ever more distorted forms. One is unable to discern reality.

This narrowing of perspective can also occur in failures of communication. In failures of communication, when the individual is not listened to or understood, the disclosure of the individual either becomes halted or stunted. Halted when one is unable to reveal oneself because no one is listening, or stunted when the disclosure of oneself is not understood. When the individual’s disclosure is halted or stunted, the community is harmed because it is deprived of the individual’s perspective. Without the proliferation of perspectives, a proliferation that requires listening and understanding, the community becomes unable to be assured of reality; the community cannot converge on what is common.

Barber hints in a similar way at the importance of listening and understanding. Barber’s conception of strong democracy holds civility as a core virtue of democratic politics, conceiving of civility as reciprocal empathy and mutual respect.[24] He states, “Civility is rooted in the idea that consciousness is a socially conditioned intelligence that takes into account the reality of other consciousnesses operating in a shared world.”[25] Civil consciousness takes into account the multiplicity of diverse perspectives of others with whom one exists. There is an interrelation in reciprocity and mutuality – the communicative exchange goes both ways. At the same time, to empathize is to understand, while to respect is to listen. When there is a failure to listen and understand, civility breaks down, and when civility breaks down, democracy breaks down.

McAfee’s “integrative model” of democratic deliberation exemplifies many of these themes, describing how democratic deliberation expands one’s mentality so that one is able to consider how decisions affect the entire community. Democratic deliberation is a form of “community making,” in which deliberators choose how to politically create their community with the understanding that they are unable to “separate political ends from the fact that they are living with other people who are also affected by these policy choices.”[26] McAfee states, “actual public deliberations usually spend a great deal of time developing a public picture of what a problem is and how it affects those in the room and others throughout the political community. As deliberators develop a public understanding of the nature and the many aspects of the problem at hand, they also begin to see themselves as a public.”[27]

What McAfee is describing here is a process of listening and understanding. Deliberation requires that the interlocutors develop an understanding of the multiplicity of perspectives that individuals hold given their distinctly unique situated positions. In choosing and making together, in ongoing political action, the individuals become linked as a public. McAfee continues, “This view distinguishes itself by aiming for integration of multiple, heterogeneous views. […] Because each starts out with a limited picture of how a policy under consideration might affect others, participants deliberate in order to learn.”[28] The process of listening and understanding links individuals into a public through learning and choice. Individuals must listen and understand in order to learn and choose. The ongoing learning and choosing, ongoing political action, is what links individuals into a public, a community.

What it means to “understand” another perspective is not entirely clear in democratic deliberative theory. McAfee’s integrative model aligns with Iris Marion Young’s definition of “understanding.” Young defines it as meaning that “there has been successful expression of experience and perspective, so that other social positions learn, and part of what they understand is that there remains more behind that experience and perspective that transcends their own subjectivity.”[29] Understanding is gaining insight into one’s interlocutors’ perspectives so that one recognizes the partiality of one’s perspective.[30] Such understanding requires one to appeal during deliberation to public values as opposed to self-interest as well as adds to the formation of social knowledge.[31] Failures of listening and understanding, following McAfee and Young, risk disintegrating the public, de-linking individuals, through a stultification of social knowledge formation which in turn truncates the availability of choices to individuals for how to collaboratively make their community.

Systemic Silencing and the Failure of Illocutionary Uptake

In the previous section, I explored the consequences to the democratic deliberative process due to communication failures, failures in listening and understanding. Democratic deliberation requires inclusivity, but communication failures perpetuate exclusivity. Young directs our attention to how deliberative processes can be exclusionary if they are unable to foster a communicative space of listening that aims for understanding. It is not only socio-economic and political inequalities that “prevent people from being equal speakers,” but also “an internalized sense of the right one has to speak or not to speak, and from the devaluation of some people’s style of speech and the elevation of others.”[32] What Young is describing is systemic silencing.

From the perspective of systemic silencing, Young points out that it is largely assumed in deliberative democratic literature that so long as socio-economic and political inequalities are bracketed, that “people’s ways of speaking and understanding will be the same,” which fails to take into account that people are situated in different cultural and social positions.[33] This is a very trenchant critique of Habermas’s position in that he fails to account for how individuals are differentially situated and how existing societal norms are carried over into the deliberative process. Norms of speaking that privilege types of speech that are assertive, articulate, unemotional, formal and general are correlated with socio-economic and political privileges.[34] Young is directing our attention to the importance of recognizing how interlocutors in the deliberative process can be silenced. People are silenced due to a restriction on their speech. This restriction can be self-imposed due to an internalization of society’s norms or it can be other-imposed due to a devaluation of the speaker’s capabilities based on society’s norms.

Systemic silencing is inimical to the realization of equality, an integral requirement for deliberation. All interlocutors must be fully recognized as equal. Following Young, Edana Beauvais argues deliberation requires two forms of equality: universal (or moral) equality and equity.[35] Universal equality is recognizing that humans all share the same moral worth, while equity entails recognizing that our interlocutors are differentially situated based on socio-political and psychical differences.[36] Equity entails recognizing that individuals can be disempowered and marginalized in the deliberative process due to persistent and unresolved structural and systemic inequities, even if universal equality is recognized.[37] Conceiving of the negation of these concepts, both types of inequalities create exclusions in the deliberative process when individuals’ contributions are either not fully considered or flat out ignored because either individuals are considered as morally inferior or their differentially situated position is not considered.[38]

Habermas hints at systemic silencing when he discusses systematically distorted communication. He recognizes how we always bring our own perspectives into the deliberation, we are never neutral observers.[39] Due to this, we are liable to stumble into failures to achieve understanding, what he identifies as “pseudo-communication, where the participants do not recognize any communication disturbances.”[40] Pseudo-communication leads to “a system of reciprocal misunderstandings which, due to the false assumption of consensus, are not recognized as such.”[41] Habermas works through this problem with Freud’s psychoanalytic theory. He directs his attention to how misunderstandings occur due to a desymbolization of meaning causing a dissonance between the individual’s meaning and the public intersubjectively recognized meaning.[42] Alan Gross points out for Habermas that this desymbolization causes the individual to deceive themselves about their communicative intent; they are acting strategically but conceiving of themselves as aiming for mutual understanding.[43] They are acting ideologically. Ideologies are the socio-political “networks of belief that ground self-deception and impede ameliorative change.”[44] Habermas states ideologies are “illusions that are outfitted with the power of common convictions,” and are “subjectively free from constraint” but are nonetheless “illusionary.”[45] Gross points out that it is structural inequalities that create ideologies and ideologies that create systematically distorted communication.[46]

Ideology sets the conditions for another form of systemic silencing. Following Antonio Gramsci, Young is concerned with how participants in a deliberative process perpetuate and justify structural inequalities due to the influence of ideologies that are produced by the very same structural inequalities.[47] Referring to Habermas, Young states that the obscured pervasiveness of systematically distorted communication makes “it difficult to think critically about aspects of [interlocutors’] social relations or alternative possibilities of institutionalization and action.”[48] Ideology is hegemonic when it becomes systemically embedded throughout society, and thus becomes naturalized to the extent that people uncritically think and behave according to its dictates.

Systemic silencing occurs, in this sense, due to the inability of interlocutors to conceptualize, to understand, other perspectives. Perspectives that counter the hegemonic ideology are beyond the conceptual purview of other interlocutors. This inability to conceptualize other perspectives results in a restriction on what is conceived of as social problems, as well as choices for solutions to those problems. As a way to counter this sort of system silencing, Young offers James Bohman’s deliberative theory as a way to test whether ideology has seized the deliberative process. Bohman argues that legitimacy of the process depends on the degree to which interlocutors are able to initiate which problems are to be discussed.[49] I emphatically agree, but I want to add to the discussion by addressing another aspect of the issue. Even if interlocutors are able to initiate which problems are to be discussed, there still remains the issue of the inability of other interlocutors to understand the perspectives that are communicated.

Initiation may afford marginalized interlocutors a space to be listened to, but not necessarily understood. The issue, I suggest, is uptake. Ideology creates conditions that complicate uptake. Some perspectives receive uptake, while others do not. Rea Langton’s work in useful here. Langton follows J.L. Austin’s speech act theory that focuses on speech as action, specifically illocutionary action. Speech is action that occurs within a context, within a situation.[50] It is not action in isolation. Austin distinguishes between locutionary acts that are simply the utterance of sentences with a particular meaning, perlocutionary acts that are the affects of the utterance on hearers, and illocutionary acts that are the intentions of the speaker in uttering the sentence.[51] Langton’s concern is with how illocutionary acts are silenced. I am suggesting that democratic deliberative theorists follow her lead. The interlocutor may be able to take part in the deliberation, uttering a sentence with a particular meaning, but other interlocutors may fail in understanding the intention of the utterance. In doing so, the speaker is silenced.

Langton points out how the powerful are able to do more with their speech, for example, silence the speech of others.[52] She argues there are several ways in which the powerful are able to silence the speech of others. They may restrict the powerless from speaking at all, from perlocutionary acts. They may, however, let the powerless speak; “Let them say whatever they like to whomever they like, but stop that speech from counting as an action […] as the action it was intended to be.”[53] Speech acts occur within situations, within contexts that create conditions for their success or failure. In performing a particular speech act, one is intending to do something; motivate, critique, argue, protest. In order for one’s speech act to do what one is intending, “The speaker will also need to secure ‘uptake’: that is to say, the hearer must recognize that an illocution of a certain kind is being performed.”[54]

Langton’s work is compatible with Young’s concerns with ideology and Beauvais’s work on inequality. Speech acts can subordinate by ranking individuals as morally inferior, thereby legitimating structural inequalities, and depriving individuals of the ability to act.[55] In deliberative processes, one’s presentation of a problem and proposed solution to the problem can be silenced if others fail to understand the speaker’s intent. The speaker may be giving reasons for their position. They may be offering a counter example to a hegemonic ideology by explicating a personal story that reflects their perspective, but their interlocutors fail to understand that they are giving a counter example.[56] This misunderstanding results in a failure to understand the speaker’s perspective. Langton offers Donald Davidson’s example of a stage actor in the middle of scene where he is supposed to be responding to an imagined fire, but an actual fire breaks out.[57] The actor yells, “FIRE!” trying to warn the audience of the danger, but the audience fails to understand the actor’s intent is to warn them and not play a part. The actor has been silenced and the “act of warning has been made unspeakable for him.”[58]

Ideology can set the situation and context for the failure of speech acts. Subordination due to structural inequalities can become hegemonic. In such contexts, there can occur failures of illocutionary uptake that result in failures of understanding the speakers’ perspectives. The ideology itself creates the situation and context for both the speaker’s validity claims and the failure of uptake. The speaker’s perspective is incomprehensible despite the speaker performing the appropriate locutionary act with the appropriate intention. Acts of motivating, critiquing, arguing, and protesting have been made unspeakable by interlocutors who have been ideologically constricted by structural inequalities. As Ishani Maitra argues, silencing is a “distinctly speech-related wrong” in that it deprives an actor of the benefits of speech, e.g. motivating, critiquing, arguing, and protesting, due to ideological beliefs about the actor.[59]


Liberal theorists have dismissed systemic silencing, claiming that the right to free speech does not entail that others actually understand what one is saying.[60] This is understandable given they are operating under conceptions of negative liberty where those whom seek to restrict speech bear the burden of proof for why restriction is necessary.[61] Within liberal theory, speech is individualistic. Speaking does not need to be communicative, it can occur in isolation; “you do not need an audience to make meaningful sounds.”[62] Primacy is given to having no restrictions on one’s ability to speak. There is no corresponding requirement for others to listen to and understand what one is saying. But, as I hope to have conveyed in the first and second sections of this paper, this is not the case with deliberative democratic theory. Deliberative democracy requires listening to and understanding each other’s perspectives.

My aim in this paper was to offer a suggestion to deliberative democratic theorists, using tenants that these theorists hold. My suggestion is that more work ought to be done to understand systemic silencing, because the success of deliberative democracy hinges on interlocutors’ listening to and understanding each other. I have further suggested that Rae Langton’s, and Jennifer Hornsby following Langton, work on systemic silencing could prove beneficial in this regard. Systemic silencing coheres with the work of many thinkers who have promoted deliberative democracy, as well as contributes a different perspective to the discussion. In closing, I would like to share a final quote from Hornsby and Langton that I think exemplifies this assertion:

There is a distinctively human capacity that one has as a member of a speech community: one is able to do things with words (and take others to do them) when others are able to take one to do them (and to do them themselves). Possession of this capacity (which is to participate in illocution) – not just of the ability to produce intelligible sounds and marks (which is to participate in locution) – is necessary for any individual to flourish as a knowledgeable being, and for the spread of knowledge across populations and generations of individuals. It is a capacity that equips human beings with a nonviolent means for reaching decisions, whether on individual or collective action. And that no doubt explains why free speech should so often have been thought not merely to assist in the spread of truth but also to be partially constitutive of democratic arrangements.[63]

[1] Michael Morrell, “Listening and Deliberation,” in The Oxford Handbook of Deliberative Democracy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), pp. 237-50

[2] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), pp. 24-25

[3] Arendt, p. 176

[4] Ibid., p. 179

[5] Ibid., pp. 183-84

[6] Ibid., p. 26

[7] Ibid., p. 27

[8] Benjamin R. Barber, Strong Democracy (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2004), p. 132

[9] Ibid., p. 133

[10] Ibid., p. 244

[11] Jürgen Habermas, Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001), p. 58

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid., p. 66; 103

[15] Ibid., p. 89

[16] Arendt, Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), p. 72

[17] Ibid., pp. 42-44

[18] Habermas, Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action, pp. 19; 27

[19] Arendt, Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy, p. 72

[20] Ibid., p. 50

[21] Ibid., p. 57

[22] Ibid., p. 58

[23] Ibid.

[24] Barber, p. 223

[25] Ibid.

[26] Nöelle McAfee, “Three Models of Democratic Deliberation,” in The Journal of Speculative Philosophy vol. 18, no. 1 (2004), p. 53

[27] Ibid., p. 53

[28] Ibid.

[29] Iris Marion Young, “Communication and the Other: Beyond Deliberative Democracy,” in Democracy and Difference: Contesting the Boundaries of the Political (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996), p. 128

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid., p. 128

[32] Ibid., p. 122

[33] Ibid., pp. 122-23

[34] Ibid., p. 124

[35] Beauvais, “Deliberation and Equality,” in The Oxford Handbook of Deliberative Democracy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), p. 146

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid., p. 147

[38] Ibid., p. 148

[39] Habermas, “On Systematically Distorted Communication,” in Inquiry: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Philosophy and the Social Sciences vol. 13, no. 1 (1970), p. 206

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Ibid., pp. 208-10

[43] Alan G. Gross, “Systematically Distorted Communication: An Impediment to Social and Political Change,” in Informal Logic vol. 30, no. 4 (2010), p. 338

[44] Ibid., p. 340

[45] Jürgen Habermas, “Hannah Arendt’s Communications Concept of Power,” in Hannah Arendt: Critical Essays (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1994), p. 225

[46] Gross, p. 341

[47] Iris Marion Young, “Activist Challenges to Deliberative Democracy,” in Philosophy of Education (2001), p. 51

[48] Ibid., p. 52

[49] Ibid.

[50] Rae Langton, “Speech Acts and Unspeakable Acts,” in Philosophy & Public Affairs vol. 22, no. 4 (1993), p. 295

[51] Langton, pp. 295-96

[52] Ibid., p. 299

[53] Ibid.

[54] Ibid., p. 301

[55] Ibid., p. 303

[56] Ishani Maitra, “Silencing Speech,” in Canadian Journal of Philosophy vol. 39, no. 2 (2009), p. 333

[57] Langton, p. 316

[58] Ibid., p. 317

[59] Maitra, pp. 331-35

[60] Jennifer Hornsby and Rae Langton, “Free Speech and Illocution,” in Legal Theory vol. 4 (1998), pp. 35-36

[61] Ibid., p. 35

[62] Ibid., p. 32

[63] Ibid., p. 37


Foucault’s Nietzschean Meta-Epistemological Critique: The Study of the Body Subjected as Mind


Where in The Order of Things Michel Foucault offers us an archeological account of classical and modern conceptions of what knowledge is, in Discipline and Punish he instead focuses his attention on the construction of the modern knowing subject. Is Foucault’s work epistemological? Epistemology traditionally asks first-order questions concerning what knowledge is and how knowledge is acquired. Meta-epistemology asks second-order questions concerning our ability to know what knowledge is and our ability to know how knowledge is acquired. Foucault is clearly not concerned with first-order normative epistemology. He is not concerned with analyzing what knowledge is, and he is not concerned with what we ought to do in order to arrive at justified beliefs. His work is not proscriptive, but instead is descriptive and critical. What he offers us in Discipline and Punish is a radical critique of the knowing subject. He destabilizes the knowing subject by genealogically describing how the knowing subject is constructed. In doing so, I suggest that he offers us a meta-epistemological critique.

For this paper, I attempt to draw out Foucault’s meta-epistemological critique in Discipline and Punish by, in part, utilizing Nietzsche’s The Genealogy of Morals. I begin by considering Foucault’s conception of the knowing subject, as I read it. What is Foucault’s conception of the knowing subject? How is Foucault’s knowing subject constructed? Next, I consider Foucault’s meta-epistemological descriptive and critical project. What is his project and how does it destabilize the knowing subject? Finally, I consider how Foucault’s project relates to central questions in meta-epistemology. What is Foucault’s response to questions concerning our ability to know what knowledge is; that is, our ability to know the extent of our ability to acquire knowledge, and our ability to know how knowledge is acquired? I argue that Foucault’s meta-epistemological descriptive critique asserts that the disciplines (1) construct the mind, (2) structure and delimit the field of knowledge, and (3) make the body a docile object to be controlled. Thus, I argue, the study of epistemology, for Foucault, is a study of the knowing subject. In other words, epistemology, for Foucault, is the study of the body subjected as mind.

Foucault’s Nietzschean Inspired Conception of the Knowing Subject: The Body Subjected as Mind

What is Foucault’s conception of the knowing subject, and how is Foucault’s knowing subject constructed? The knowing subject is, as I read Foucault’s genealogical account, a construction within a historical process. The knowing subject is a body subjected via knowledge-power relations within a historical process.

If we reflect on the word “subject,” then I think we can gain a fuller understanding of what the knowing subject is and how the knowing subject is constructed for Foucault. As a noun, “subject” relates to a person whom is under another person’s (e.g. sovereign, priest, etc.) rule or control. To be a subject is to be ruled and controlled. However, to be a subject is also to essentially be a mind. It is an essential attribute, the underlying substance, of a thing. It is also “A being (or power) that thinks, knows, or perceives (more fully conscious subject, thinking subject); the conscious mind, esp. as opposed to any objects external to it.”[1] It is also to be an object of attention. It is a person: “under investigation or surveillance” by authorities, or “receiving or requiring medical, surgical, or psychological treatment,” or “suffering from a particular disease,” or “as the object of research or experimentation.”[2] However, “subject” is also “a body of knowledge” in which “one studies or is instructed” “as part of a curriculum for the purpose of examination.”[3]

Subject understood as an adjective is “In a state of subjection or dependence; under the control, rule, or influence of something” or “in a state of subjection to the power, law, command, etc., of another.”[4] As a verb, “subject” means “To make a subject or bring into subjection to the rule, government, power, or service of superior,” as well as “To bring under the operation of an agent, agency, or process; to submit to certain treatment; to cause to undergo or experience something physically.”[5]

For Foucault, as I read him, the knowing subject is a construction that emerges in the historical transition from sovereign power to modern power. In sovereign power, punishment extracts from the body. Crimes against society are crimes against the sovereign in that the sovereign embodies the society. Punishment, states Nietzsche, was due to “anger at some harm or injury, vented on the one who caused it – but this anger is held in check and modified by the idea that every injury has its equivalent and can actually be paid back, even if only through the pain of the culprit.”[6] The offender’s flesh is the site for the sovereign to extract the repentant obedience the offender owes to the sovereign.

There occurs, however, for both Foucault and Nietzsche, a shift in forms of punishment in the transition to modern power. For Nietzsche, “as power increases, a community ceases to take the individual’s transgressions so seriously, because they can no longer be considered as dangerous and destructive to the whole as they were before […] As the power and self-confidence of a community increase, the penal law always becomes more moderate.”[7] Two aspects of Nietzsche’s claim here are important for Foucault: (1) correlation between power and punishment, and (2) the change in the type of punishment. For Foucault, punishment no longer extracts from the body, but instead infuses the body; it “no longer addresses itself to the body,” instead it affects “the soul.”[8] Punishment that “once rained down upon the body” is replaced “by a punishment that acts in depth on the heart, the thoughts, the will, the inclinations.”[9] Foucault states, “The history of this ‘micro-physics’ of the punitive power would then be a genealogy or an element in a genealogy of the modern ‘soul.’”[10] So, for Foucault, punishment against the body may have become more lenient, but the power of the community shifted to a form of punishment that created the modern soul, consciousness, citizen, i.e. subject.

What Foucault presents us with is a history of the construction of the modern “soul,” with “soul” entailing the “subject” in all of its multivalent senses. The subject as the person, as a mind accessed through the body. Foucault states, “it is always the body that is at issue – the body and its forces, their utility and their docility, their distribution and their submission.”[11] It is the body that is subjected. To be a subject (as a noun) is to be subjected (as an adjective and as a verb); subjected as in being constructed as a mind, subjected as in being controlled, subjected as in being an object of examination, observation, classification, and correction. Subjection is a continuous process, not an essential state of being. When Foucault states “The soul is the effect and instrument of a political anatomy; the soul is the prison of the body,” he is speaking of subjection in this multivalent and continuous sense.[12] The knowing subject is a subjected body; a subjected body that is continuously constructed through its subjection.

Foucault’s Nietzschean Meta-Epistemological Descriptive and Critical Project

How does Foucault destabilize the knowing subject? One point to begin to examine this question is in Nietzsche’s perspectivism. Nietzsche states,

But precisely because we seek knowledge, let us not be ungrateful to such resolute reversals of accustomed perspectives and valuations with which the spirit has, with apparent mischievousness and futility, raged against itself for so long: to see differently in this way for once, to want to see differently, is no small discipline and preparation of the intellect for its future ‘objectivity’ – the latter understood not as ‘contemplation without interest’ (which is a nonsensical absurdity), but as the ability to control one’s Pro and Con and to dispose of them, so that one knows how to employ a variety of perspectives and affective interpretations in the service of knowledge.[13]


Nietzsche’s perspectivism is an epistemological technique. It is a technique that calls on the knower to, first, rally against the ways they have been subjected through discipline to “know” the world, to rally against a position of disinterested “objectivity.” Second, it calls on the knower to want to seek out different ways of positioning themselves as a knower. This want, as I read it, is necessary because it instills in the knower interests and interests are multifaceted and continuous. Third, as knowers have been disciplined to approach knowledge from a position of disinterestedness, it calls on knowers to avoid removing interests in the process of contemplating the world. Instead, knowers are to approach contemplation through a variety of interest positions, considering each position from a multiplicity of divergent, contrary, and conflicting perspectives. Perspectivism, is then, an epistemological technique that treats knowledge as rhizomatic, progressing multidimensionally as opposed to linearly.

In relation to Foucault, power-knowledge is continuous. New forms of discipline emerge to continuously subject the body through the mind. To instill the idea of a knowing subject into humans is a process of continuous subjection. Perspectivism is a technique by which the idea of the knowing subject can be continuously critiqued. Where disinterestedness is intended to solidify the idea of the knowing subject, interestedness fluctuates. “Objectivity” solidifies human thought into a static way of contemplating the world and themselves within the world. Conversely, as interest fluctuates, the stability of human thought fluctuates.

Human thought contemplates the world from everchanging perspectives. Consider, for a moment, Vulcans from Star Trek. Vulcans are completely disinterested, completely within the mindset of logical objectivity. As such, they cognitively inhabit only one perspective. Consider how having a wide variety of interests shift which perspective we take. For example, as one’s interests shift from caring for one’s own needs, to caring for another’s needs, to exploring the natural and nonhuman world, one’s perspectives would shift as well from one’s self, to another, to nonhuman animal ways of inhabiting and engaging with the world. Who the human thinker is in this continuous contemplative movement is never the same. As the human thinker is never the same, the idea of the knowing subject can never be solidified.

For Foucault, the knowing subject is not an ontological entity, but an effect, a construction, of a continuous process. As subjection is a continuous process that occurs beyond the level of awareness, understanding the process is a way to destabilize the process. For both Foucault and Nietzsche, the body is situated in a historical (spatial-temporal) process, and this process is not neutral. It is imbued with power-knowledge relations. In regard to the question of the purpose of punishment, Nietzsche states “purposes and utilities are only signs” within a power relation where the powerful has “imposed upon the character of a function […] the entire history of a ‘thing,’ an organ, a custom, can in this way be a continuous sign-chain of ever new interpretations and adaptations whose causes do not even have to be related to one another but, on the contrary, in some cases succeed and alternate with one another in a purely chance fashion.”[14] This “evolution” is neither a teleological nor a logical process, “but a succession of more or less profound, more 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. The form is fluid, but the ‘meaning’ is even more so.”[15] For Nietzsche, the purpose and meaning of punishment is foundationless process that shifts and adapts in response to societal conditions. The illusion of a static purpose and meaning is imposed upon punishment as a method of subjection.

For Foucault, the body is necessarily and “directly involved in a political field; power relations have an immediate hold upon it; they invest it, mark it, train it, torture it, force it to carry out tasks, to perform ceremonies, to emit signs.”[16] To be sure, Nietzsche’s conception of power is something that one possesses while Foucault’s conception of power is something that is not able to be individually possessed, it is a socio-political force. Nonetheless, for both Nietzsche and Foucault, power is continuous, relational, and fluid. The body is caught up in a continuous and fluid process of power relations that discipline it in particular ways for particular purposes and uses. These methods and effects are signs that can be traced and deciphered to reveal the development of the system of power relations. The body reveals its subjection.

Foucault describes this historical process of subjection through three epochs: “[1] the sovereign and his force, [2] the social body and [3] the administrative apparatus,” each associated with, respectively, the “mark, sign, trace.”[17] The sovereign is further associated with “ceremony,” “the vanquished enemy,” and “the tortured body.”[18] The social body is further associated with “representation,” “the juridical subject in the process of requalification,” and “the soul with its manipulated representations.”[19] The administrative apparatus is further associated with “exercise,” “the individual subjected to immediate coercion,” and “the body subjected to training.”[20]

The modern subjected body emerged from this process. While the sovereign marked the body, it was with the reformers that the “soul,” i.e. mind, emerged. Punishment developed with the reformers to incorporate and give primacy to an entire system of symbolic representations. This system no longer focused on extracting from the body via methods designed to inflict pain, but instead focused on infusing the mind, “or rather a play of representations and sign circulating discreetly but necessarily and evidently in the minds of all.”[21] As Foucault states, the point of application for power “is no longer the body, but the soul,” with the soul understood as the subjected body.[22]

Symbolic representations which linked the idea of offence necessarily with the idea of pain were imbued in the subjected body. Nietzsche describes this technique as “mnemotechnics,” and states, “‘If something is to stay in the memory it must be burned in: only that which never ceases to hurt stays in memory’ – this is the main clause of the oldest (unhappily also the most enduring) psychology on earth.”[23] Every form of torture and sacrifice “has its origin in the instinct that realized that pain is the most powerful aid to mnemonics.”[24] “The severity of the penal code,” he states, “provides an especially significant measure of the degree of effort needed to overcome forgetfulness and to impose a few primitive demands of social existence as present realities” upon the body being subjected.[25] Foucault elaborates on this idea of bodily punishment as a means of inculcating knowledge. Sovereign power, marks of pain, morphs and links to modern power through the epoch of the social body. Marks on one’s body are replaced by signs of punishment that bring to recall the marks. Then, the signs become imbued in the subject to such an extent that the subject subjects themselves.

For Foucault, this is a “natural mechanics” in which the idea of punishment outweighs the idea of crime.[26] The idea of pain is necessarily, automatically, and perpetually linked with the idea of crime through techniques that: (1) focus on the entire population and not just offenders, (2) create mechanisms of surveillance that instill a sense of certainty in the population that the offense will not go unpunished, (3) create an exhaustive code that classifies and defines all offences and fixes their concomitant penalties, and (4) create social mechanisms for observing, examining, documenting, categorizing, and classifying every offender’s individualized “nature.”[27]

The link between the idea of punishment and the idea of crime is a system of symbolic representations that appear as natural in their ubiquity. These “obstacle-signs” must “circulate rapidly and widely; they must be accepted and redistributed by all; they must shape the discourse that each individual has with others and by which crime is forbidden to all by all.”[28] These obstacle-signs will continuously be universally recoded into the social imaginary through their uptake into everyday discourse.[29]

The techniques utilized by the reformers developed once more to become coercive disciplines, these disciplines make biopower possible. The system of power-knowledge relations becomes completely naturalized in this transformation. In becoming naturalized, the system of power-knowledge relations moves to a level beyond awareness. Two particular aspects of disciplinary power are of interest here. The first is the examination. The examination, Foucault states, “manifests the subjection of those who are perceived as objects and the objectification of those who are subjected […] It is not simply at the level of consciousness, of representation and in what one thinks one knows, but at the level of what makes possible the knowledge that is transformed into political investment.”[30] The examination, as in to observe the subjected in order to determine and assign their place in the gradational hierarchy of “ab/normality,” is a technique par excellence that constructs the subjected body. In the examination, thought is turned into an object to be observed, collected, hierarchically classified and categorized, utilized to define the norm, and utilized as a measure for correction.

The second is surveillance. In modern power, the individual becomes the agent of their own subjection; the individual subjects themselves as an object. Foucault states, “He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection.”[31] Under the threat of constant surveillance, the individual becomes an agent in their own subjection, constructing their own subjected body in accordance with the power-knowledge relations in which they are immersed. The individual becomes both the observer/observed and examiner/examined. The individual hierarchically categorizes and classifies themselves, creates and measures themselves against the norm, and corrects themselves.

Examination and surveillance are two techniques of disciplinary power. Disciplines collectively are spatial-temporal techniques that habituate subjection by training the body. It is a method of training that utilizes the repetition of movement within spatial-temporal parameters.[32] Disciplines utilize techniques that work at the level of micro details, the increasingly smaller spaces and times, to habituate the body in the minutest movements. These techniques seek to construct “the obedient subject, the individual subjected to habits, rules, order, an authority that is exercised continually around him and upon him, and which he must allow to function automatically in him.”[33] The subjected are continuously surveilled or under threat of being surveilled, individualized, examined, hierarchically classified and categorized within a gradation, measured against the distribution norm, and corrected.[34]

Disciplines are techniques that “invest human bodies” as subjects and “subjugate them by turning them into objects of knowledge.”[35] Foucault states, in reference to incarceration, “the individual is carefully fabricated in it, according to a whole technique of forces and bodies.”[36] In other words, the subjected body is a construction of knowledge and an object of knowledge. Furthermore, panoptic observation, a carceral mechanism, “gains in efficiency and in the ability to penetrate into men’s behavior; knowledge follows the advances of power, discovering new objects of knowledge over all the surfaces on which power is exercised.”[37] A proliferation of objects of knowledge emerge within the system of power relations based on the system’s disciplinary mechanisms.

For example, the human sciences were made possible due a “carceral network,” a network of mechanisms such as examination and surveillance that began in the prison system but have become imbued in everyday life throughout the entirety of society. Foucault states, “Knowable man (soul, individuality, consciousness, conduct, whatever it is called) is the object-effect of this analytical investment, of this domination-observation.”[38] The subjected body is both an object and an effect of subjection. The knowable is an object and an effect of the system of power relations in which it is situated.

For Foucault, within the carceral system of modern disciplinary power, knowledge is structured by the system. But, I read Foucault as making an even stronger claim. Knowledge is not only structured by the system, it is also delimited by the system. The system of power-knowledge relations determines what is epistemologically conceivable because it constructs the mind as a subjugated body. The subjected body is both a construction and object of knowledge. Subjects of knowledge emerge from subjection. These aspects occur in accordance with the system of power-knowledge relations, and the ubiquity of this system means that there is no way out. However, given that the process of subjection is continuous, the process can be disrupted, and this is what I take Foucault to be doing. He states, “The critical ontology of ourselves must be considered not, certainly, as a theory, a doctrine, nor even as a permanent body of knowledge that is accumulating; it must be conceived as an attitude, an ethos, a philosophical life in which the critique of what we are is at one and the same time the historical analysis of the limits that are imposed on us and an experiment in the possibility of going beyond them.”[39] Foucault’s critique, his genealogical description, challenges the construction of the subjected body as well as the structuring and delimiting of knowledge through its radical critique of the ongoing construction of the knowing subject.

Foucault’s Meta-Epistemological Descriptive Critique

How is Foucault’s descriptive critique a meta-epistemological challenge? What is Foucault’s response to questions concerning our ability to know what knowledge is and our ability to know how knowledge is acquired? As I read Foucault, the following passage is crucial in understanding his meta-epistemological descriptive critique, thus I cite it in full:

We should admit rather that power produces knowledge (and not simply by encouraging it because it serves power or by applying it because it is useful); that power and knowledge directly imply one another; that there is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time power relations. These ‘power-knowledge relations’ are to be analyzed, therefore, not on the basis of a subject of knowledge who is or is not free in relation to the power system, but, on the contrary, the subject who knows, the objects to be known and the modalities of knowledge must be regarded as so many effects of these fundamental implications of power-knowledge and their historical transformations. In short, it is not the activity of the subject of knowledge that produces a corpus of knowledge, useful or resistant to power, but power-knowledge, the processes and struggles that traverse it and of which it is made up, that determines the forms and possible domains of knowledge.[40]


Foucault does not define knowledge because he is not concerned with what “knowledge” is as an abstractly knowable concept. Power and knowledge are continuously co-constituting. The knowing subject, knowable objects, and the possible types of knowledge available to be known are all continuous effects of historical processes imbued with disciplinary power. To be subjected is to be a mind, it is to be controlled, it is to be an object of study. Knowledge in the system of modern disciplinary power, is structured and delimited by the system. No subjected body is outside of these power-knowledge relations, and it is not possible to remove oneself from these power-knowledge relations. If it is the case that the body is subjected in these multivalent ways, and if it is the case that knowledge (whatever it is) is structured and delimited by a system of power relations, then what does it mean for knowledge as traditionally conceived of in epistemology – that is, knowledge as a relation between truth and justified belief?

A Foucauldian response, as I interpret Foucault, would assert that the system of disciplinary power would dictate what is epistemically conceivable within the system. Epistemology, as a study (a subject) of knowledge, is an object of study that emerges within a particular historical process and as such is no less imbued with power-knowledge relations. Within such a system, terms like “knowledge,” “truth,” and “justified belief” are subjected. These terms reveal the subjected body, the knowing subject, a mind, becoming both observed/observer and examined/examiner, hierarchically classifying and categorizing itself, creating and measuring itself against a norm, and correcting itself.

For example, epistemology largely asks “What are the necessary and sufficient conditions for S to know that p?”[41] Largely, to have knowledge of a proposition, p, it must be the case that (1) S believes p, (2) p is true, and (3) S is justified in believing p either based on reasonable evidence or objective probability due to “reliable cognitive processes and faculties.”[42] The first part of the disjunct in the third criteria refers to evidentialism and the second part of the disjunct refers to reliabilism. Evidentialism largely holds that experiences of mental states, such as introspection, perception, memory, intuition, count as reasonable evidence for belief.[43] Reliabilism adds the caveat that such experiences serve to justify belief if and only if the experience results from cognitive processes and faculties that have tended to result in true beliefs, which gives the experience a higher probability of resulting in further true beliefs.[44]

Foucault’s meta-epistemological descriptive critique speaks primarily, as I conceive of it, to the third of these criteria. Epistemological discourse becomes much more involved and complex, but nonetheless, at the core of the study of knowledge is the study of justified beliefs and what makes beliefs justified. However, justified beliefs are based on experiences of mental states; mental states as experienced by the knowing subject, the knowing subject as a construction and effect of power-knowledge relations. Those mental states may indeed be supplemented by reliable cognitive processes and faculties, but all of this nonetheless occurs within a particular system of power-knowledge relations. There is a high probability of an individual acting in a particular way when the person has been subjected to act in that way. One can reliably count on one’s cognitive processes and faculties to perceive in the ways that their cognitive processes and faculties have been disciplined to perceive.

Knowledge (again, whatever it is), in this sense then, is entirely contained within and is a reflection of the system of power relations. If this is the case, in studying epistemology, one is simply studying their own body as it has been subjected as a mind, as a knowing subject. As such, the subject of epistemology is the body subjected as mind.


My aim in this paper has been threefold. First, I aimed to explore what Foucault’s Nietzschean inspired conception of the knowing subject is and how that knowing subject is constructed. Second, I aimed to explore Foucault’s Nietzschean radical, genealogical, meta-epistemological critical description of the knowing subject and suggest how such a description destabilizes the knowing subject. Third, I aimed to explore Foucault’s response to questions concerning our ability to know what knowledge is; our ability to know the extent of our ability to acquire knowledge, and our ability to know how knowledge is acquired. Ultimately, I have argued that, for Foucault, the knowing subject is a continuous construction of power-knowledge relations. These power-knowledge relations (1) construct the mind, (2) structure and delimit the field of knowledge, and (3) make the body a docile object to be controlled. As such, the study of knowledge, epistemology as a subject, is a study of body subjected as mind.

[1] “subject, n.”. OED Online. March 2018. Oxford University Press. (accessed April 15, 2018).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] “subject, adj. and adv.”. OED Online. March 2018. Oxford University Press. (accessed April 15, 2018).

[5] “subject, v.”. OED Online. March 2018. Oxford University Press. (accessed April 15, 2018).

[6] Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, trans. Walter Kaufman and R.J. Hollingdale (New York City: Vintage Books, 1989), p. 63.

[7] Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, p. 72.

[8] Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York City: Vintage Books, 1995), p. 16

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., p. 29

[11] Ibid., p. 25

[12] Ibid., p. 30

[13] Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, p. 119.

[14] Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, p. 77

[15] Ibid., pp. 77-78

[16] Foucault, Discipline and Punish, p. 25

[17] Ibid., p. 131

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid., p. 101

[22] Ibid.

[23] Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morals, p. 61

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Foucault, Discipline and Punish, p. 104

[27] Ibid., pp. 94-96; 99; 104; 126

[28] Ibid., p. 108

[29] Ibid., p. 112

[30] Ibid., pp. 184-185

[31] Ibid., pp. 202-203

[32] Ibid., p. 167

[33] Ibid., p. 129

[34] Ibid., pp. 181; 183; 183

[35] Ibid., pp. 28; 181

[36] Ibid., p. 217

[37] Ibid., p. 204

[38] Ibid., p. 305

[39] Foucault, “What is Enlightenment?” in Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York City: The New Press, 1994), p. 319

[40] Ibid., pp. 27-28; italics mine.

[41] Steup, Matthias, “Epistemology”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <;

[42] Ibid.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Ibid.

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


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.


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.

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


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.


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


“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 <;, 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 <;, 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),

<;, 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, <;

[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), <;

[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 <;, accessed May 8, 2017.

[75] Brendan O’Brien, “California Governor Brown Signs Law Banning Use of Bullhooks on Elephants,” Reuters, August 30, 2016 <;, 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)


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.