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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

[5] Ibid.

[6] Sartre, “Black Orpheus,” p. 13

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

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

[9] Sartre, The Imaginary, p. 9

[10] Ibid. p. 19

[11] Ibid. p. 84

[12] Ibid.

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

[14] Ibid. p. 434

[15] Sartre, The Imaginary, p. 21

[16] Ibid. 64

[17] Ibid. 84

[18] Ibid. 64

[19] Ibid. p. 84

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

[21] Ibid. p. 20

[22] Ibid. p. 21

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

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

[25] Sartre, “Black Orpheus,” p. 21

[26] Sartre, The Imaginary, p. 69

[27] Ibid. p. 71

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

[29] Sartre, The Imaginary, p. 97

[30] Ibid. p. 101

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

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

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

[34] Sartre, The Imaginary, p. 125

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

[36] Ibid. p. 439

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

[38] Ibid. pp. 439-440

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

[40] Webber, p. xxv

[41] Ibid.

[42] Ibid.  xxv-xxvi

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

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

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

[46] Ibid. p. 100

[47] Ibid. p. 130

[48]Ibid. p. 145

[49] Ibid. p. 150

[50] Ibid. p. 152

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

[52] Sartre, p. 129

[53] Ibid. p. 101

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

[55] Ibid. p. 735

[56] Ibid. pp. 344-345

[57] Ibid. p. 345

[58] Ibid. p. 345

[59] Ibid. p. 347

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

[61] Ibid. p. 348

[62] Ibid. p. 348-349

[63] Ibid. p. 349

[64] Ibid.

[65] Ibid.

[66] Ibid. p. 350

[67] Ibid. p. 351

[68] Ibid. 354

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[3] Ibid., pp. xv-xvi

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

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

[6] Ibid. p. 16

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid. p. 17

[9] Ibid. p. 18

[10] Ibid. pp. 18-19

[11] Ibid. pp. 19-20

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

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

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

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

[16] Jensen, pp. 89-90

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

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

[19] Ibid. p. 90

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

[21] Ibid., p. 12.

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

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

[24] hooks, Killing Rage, p. 39

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

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] hooks, Killing Rage, p. 39

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

[31] Ibid. p. 48

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

[33] Ibid., p. 164

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

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

[36] Ibid.

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

[38] Ibid.

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

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

[41] Ibid., p. 168

[42] Ibid., p. 169

[43] Ibid., p. 170

[44] Ibid., p. 173

[45] Ibid.

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

[47] Ibid., p. xvii

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

[49] Ibid., p. 158

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

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

[52] Ibid., p. 193

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

Benjamin’s Revolutionary Historical Materialism in Philosophy


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

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

Spatial Image and the Act of Remembrance: Fragment V

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion: A Habermasian Translation

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

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

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

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

[2] p. 255

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] p. 256

[6] Ibid.

[7] p. 257

[8] pp. 257-58

[9] p. 260

[10] Ibid.

[11] p. 264

[12] Ibid.

[13] p. 261

[14] p. 263

[15] p. 261

[16] pp. 261-62

[17] p. 262

[18] pp. 262-63

[19] p. 263

[20] Ibid.

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

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

[23] pp. 25 – 26

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

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