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.

Tom Regan and Patricia Williams on Nonhuman Animal Rights – Some Quotes to Consider

Patricia Williams, The Alchemy of Race and Rights: Diary of a Law Professor (pp. 156-165)

“Some time ago, I taught a property class in which we studied the old case of Pierson v. Post:

Post, being in possession of certain dogs and hounds under his command, did, ‘upon a certain wild and uninhabited, unpossessed and waste land, called the beach, find and start one of those noxious beasts called a fox,’ and whilst there hunting, chasing and pursuing the same with his dogs and hounds, and when in view thereof, Pierson, well knowing the fox was so hunted and pursued, did, in the sight of Post, to prevent his catching the same, kill and carry it off.

[…] It was about this time that I began studying something that may have been the contract of sale of my great-great grandmother as well as a census accounting that does list her, along with other, inanimate evidence of wealth, as the ‘personal property’ of Austin Miller.

In reviewing those powerfully impersonal documents, I realized that both she and the fox shared a common lot, were either owned or unowned, never the owner. And whether owned or unowned, rights over them never filtered down to them; right to their persons were never vested in them. When owned, issues of physical, mental, and emotional abuse or cruelty were assigned by the law to the private tolerance, whimsy, or insanity of an external master. And when unowned – free, freed, or escaped – again their situation was uncontrollably precarious, for as objects to be owned, they and the game of their conquest were seen only as potential enhancements to some other self. […]

From the object-property’s point of view (that of my great-great grandmother and the nameless fox), the rhetoric of certainty (of rights, formal rules, and fixed entitlements) has been enforced at best as if it were the rhetoric of context (of fluidity, informal rules, and unpredictability). Yet the fullness of context, the trust that enhances the use of more fluid systems, is lost in the lawless influence of cultural insensitivity and taboo. So while it appears to jurisdictionally recognized and invested parties that rights designate outcomes with a clarity akin to wisdom, for the object-property the effect is one of existing in a morass of unbounded irresponsibility.

[…] This underscores my sense of the importance of rights: rights are to law what conscious commitments are to the psyche. This country’s worst historical moments have not been attributable to rights assertion but to a failure of rights commitment. From this perspective, the problem with rights discourse is not that the discourse is itself constricting but that it exists in a constricted referential universe. The body of private laws epitomized by contract, including slave contract, is problematic because it denies the object of contract any rights at all.

[…] Such expanded reference – first made controversial by Christopher Stone’s famous article ‘Should Trees Have Standing?’ – is premised on the degree to which rights do empower and make visible:

We are inclined to suppose the rightlessness of rightless ‘things’ to be a decree of Nature, not a legal convention acting in support of some status quo. It is thus that we defer considering the choices involved in all their moral, social and economic dimensions…The fact is that each time there is a movement to confer rights onto some new ‘entity,’ the proposal is bound to sound odd or frightening or laughable. This is partly because until the rightless thing receives its rights, we cannot see it as anything but a thing for the use of ‘us’ – those who are holding rights at the time.

One consequence of this broader reconfiguration of rights is to give voice to those people or things that, by virtue of their object relation to a contract, historically have had no voice. Allowing this sort of empowering opens up the egoisme à deux of traditional contract and increases the limited bipolarity of relationship that characterizes so much of western civilization. Listening to and looking for interests beyond the narrowest boundaries of linear, dualistically reciprocal encounters is characteristic of gift relationships, networks of encompassing expectation and support.

[…] Such an expanded frame of rights reference underlies a philosophy of more generously extending rights to all one’s fellow creatures, whether human or beast.

[…] The task for Critical Legal Studies, then, is not to discard rights but to see through or past them so that they reflect a larger definition of privacy and property: so that privacy is turned from exclusion based on self-regard into regard for another’s fragile, mysterious autonomy; and so that property regains its ancient connotation of being a reflection of the universal self. The task is to expand private property rights into a conception of civil rights, into the right to expect civility from others. In discarding rights altogether, one discards a symbol too deeply enmeshed in the psyche of the oppressed to lose without trauma and much resistance. Instead, society must give them away. Unlock them from reification by giving them to slaves. Give them to trees. Give them to cows. Give them to history. Give them to rivers and rocks. Give to all of society’s objects and untouchables the rights of privacy, integrity, and self-assertion; give them distance and respect. Flood them with the animating spirit that rights mythology fires in this country’s most oppressed psyches, and wash away the shrouds of inanimate-object status, so that we may say not that we own gold but that a luminous golden spirit owns us.”

Tom Regan, “The Case for Animal Rights,” in In Defense of Animals (pp. 13-29)

“What to do? Where to begin anew? The place to begin, I think, is with the utilitarian’s view of the value of the individual — or, rather, lack of value. In its place, suppose we consider that you and I, for example, do have value as individuals — what we’ll call inherent value. To say we have such value is to say that we are something more than, something different from, mere receptacles. Moreover, to ensure that we do not pave the way for such injustices as slavery or sexual discrimination, we must believe that all who have inherent value have it equally, regardless of their sex, race, religion, birthplace and so on. Similarly to be discarded as irrelevant are one’s talents or skills, intelligence and wealth, personality or pathology, whether one is loved and admired or despised and loathed. The genius and the retarded child, the prince and the pauper, the brain surgeon and the fruit vendor, Mother Teresa and the most unscrupulous used-car salesman — all have inherent value, all possess it equally, and all have an equal right to be treated with respect, to be treated in ways that do not reduce them to the status of things, as if they existed as resources for others. My value as an individual is independent of my usefulness to you. Yours is not dependent on your usefulness to me. For either of us to treat the other in ways that fail to show respect for the other’s independent value is to act immorally, to violate the individual’s rights.

Some of the rational virtues of this view – what I call the rights view – should be evident. Unlike (crude) contractarianism, for example, the rights view in principle denies the moral tolerability of any and all forms of racial, sexual or social discrimination; and unlike utilitarianism, this view in principle denies that we can justify good results by using evil means that violate an individual’s rights -denies, for example, that it could be moral to kill my Aunt Bea to harvest beneficial consequences for others. That would be to sanction the disrespectful treatment of the individual in the name of the social good, something the rights view will not — categorically will not —ever allow.

The rights view, I believe, is rationally the most satisfactory moral theory. It surpasses all other theories in the degree to which it illuminates and explains the foundation of our duties to one another – the domain of human morality. On this score it has the best reasons, the best arguments, on its side. Of course, if it were possible to show that only human beings are included within its scope, then a person like myself, who believes in animal rights, would be obliged to look elsewhere.

But attempts to limit its scope to humans only can be shown to be rationally defective. Animals, it is true, lack many of the abilities humans possess. They can’t read, do higher mathematics, build a bookcase or make baba ghanoush. Neither can many human beings, however, and yet we don’t (and shouldn’t) say that they (these humans) therefore have less inherent value, less of a right to be treated with respect, than do others. It is the similarities between those human beings who most clearly, most non-controversially have such value (the people reading this, for example), not our differences, that matter most. And the really crucial, the basic similarity is simply this: we are each of us the experiencing subject of a life, a conscious creature having an individual welfare that has importance to us whatever our usefulness to others. We want and prefer things, believe and feel things, recall and expect things. And all these dimensions of our life, including our pleasure and pain, our enjoyment and suffering, our satisfaction and frustration, our continued existence or our untimely death – all make a difference to the quality of our life as lived, as experienced, by us as individuals. As the same is true of those animals that concern us (the ones that are eaten and trapped, for example), they too must be viewed as the experiencing subjects of a life, with inherent value of their own.

Some there are who resist the idea that animals have inherent value. ‘Only humans have such value,’ they profess. How might this narrow view be defended? Shall we say that only humans have the requisite intelligence, or autonomy, or reason? But there are many, many humans who fail to meet these standards and yet are reasonably viewed as having value above and beyond their usefulness to others. Shall we claim that only humans belong to the right species, the species Homo sapiens? But this is blatant speciesism. Will it be said, then, that all – and only – humans have immortal souls? Then our opponents have their work cut out for them. I am myself not ill-disposed to the proposition that there are immortal souls. Personally, I profoundly hope I have one. But I would not want to rest my position on a controversial ethical issue on the even more controversial question about who or what has an immortal soul. That is to dig one’s hole deeper, not to climb out. Rationally, it is better to resolve moral issues without making more controversial assumptions than are needed. The question of who has inherent value is such a question, one that is resolved more rationally without the introduction of the idea of immortal souls than by its use.

Well, perhaps some will say that animals have some inherent value, only less than we have. Once again, however, attempts to defend this view can be shown to lack rational justification. What could be the basis of our having more inherent value than animals? Their lack of reason, or autonomy, or intellect? Only if we are willing to make the same judgment in the case of humans who are similarly deficient. But it is not true that such humans — the retarded child, for example, or the mentally deranged – have less inherent value than you or I. Neither, then, can we rationally sustain the view that animals like them in being the experiencing subjects of a life have less inherent value. All who have inherent value have it equally, whether they be human animals or not.

Inherent value, then, belongs equally to those who are the experiencing subjects of a life. Whether it belongs to others – to rocks and rivers, trees and glaciers, for example — we do not know and may never know. But neither do we need to know, if we are to make the case for animal rights. We do not need to know, for example, how many people are eligible to vote in the next presidential election before we can know whether I am. Similarly, we do not need to know how many individuals have inherent value before we can know that some do. When it comes to the case for animal rights, then, what we need to know is whether the animals that, in our culture, are routinely eaten, hunted and used in our laboratories, for example, are like us in being subjects of a life. And we do know this. We do know that many – literally, billions and billions – of these animals are the subjects of a life in the sense explained and so have inherent value if we do. And since, in order to arrive at the best theory of our duties to one another, we must recognize our equal inherent value as individuals, reason – not sentiment, not emotion – reason compels us to recognize the equal inherent value of these animals and, with this, their equal right to be treated with respect.

That, very roughly, is the shape and feel of the case for animal rights. Most of the details of the supporting argument are missing. They are to be found in the book to which I alluded earlier. Here, the details go begging, and I must, in closing, limit myself to four final points.

The first is how the theory that underlies the case for animal rights shows that the animal rights movement is a part of, not antagonistic to, the human rights movement. The theory that rationally grounds the rights of animals also grounds the rights of humans. Thus those involved in the animal rights movement are partners in the struggle to secure respect for human rights – the rights of women, for example, or minorities, or workers. The animal rights movement is cut from the same moral cloth as these.”

The Personal and the Political

Zoe Williams’s article in the Guardian on Hannah Arendt’s prescient and insightful dissection of totalitarianism and violence discusses the relevance of comparisons between the Nazi movement in Germany during the 1920-40’s with our own time and the rise of the Alt-Right movement.

I encourage reading Williams’s article because I think she does a wonderful job explaining Arendt’s position on the origins of totalitarianism and violence. Briefly, the rise of Nazi totalitarianism for Arendt was a complex social event that incorporated a large mass of citizens who were vulnerable to economic instability, who were reduced and atomized to merely workers, and who felt completely disenfranchised from the political and public structures that were determining their lives. This mass of people were incited to follow a genocidal leader who portrayed himself as a savior figure and touted a deeply subversive racist ideology that used fear of “otherness” to rile up anger and unite the mass.

Arendt was very concerned with the use of ideology to rile up masses of people to act out violently. Violence, as Williams very aptly points out for Arendt, is used to justify the use of totalitarian violence. Williams makes this claim in response to protest movements on the left and radical left of the political spectrum. Arendt’s warning is that should the left respond fervently in ways construed as “violence”, it will only be used by the right to justify the ideology of the right. This ought to be concerning given Trump’s claims to bring about “law and order” and the subversive racist messages imbued in such a proclamation. Particularly concerning are proposed laws that specifically target protesters, making it legal to run over protesters and labeling protests as “economic terrorism”. Such tactics have been used for decades now against environmental and animal rights activists and more recently with a petition in regard to the Black Lives Matter movement – where even when these movements are largely nonviolent, they are nonetheless labeled as “terrorists”.

What I would like to add is that it has become obvious that the government is not going to help us. Trump’s cabinet is stocked full of every flavor of racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobic, xenophobia, anti-environmentalism, money-in-politics, pro-corporation, anti-worker to poison the palate. It is obvious that we have to enact change where we can, changes from the grassroots levels outside of government. While I think Arendt (and Williams) makes a very good point about how totalitarianism and violence works, I will not follow her down the path of a clear distinction between the public and private. I do not think that there can be, nor that there ought to be, a clear distinction between the public and private realms. However, I am saying that we need to really start, collectively and nonviolently, making a strong movement that incorporates our everyday private actions into our political views. We need to start changing our everyday behavior with more urgency.

Corporations might have access to government through money, but we are the ones giving these corporations money. We have to enact change everywhere we can. Ava DuVernay’s 13th is a revelation of how corporations perpetuate racist structures through lobbying and legislation. We need to be aware of how corporations are spending the money we give them, and refuse to give our money to corporations that perpetuate racist, homophobic, misogynist, xenophobic, and transphobic social and political structures. We need to support investigative journalists and lawyers who fight for freedom of the press and freedom of speech so that we have the information we need to make informed choices about where our money goes. We cannot just purchase from corporations that claim charitable goals, we have to refuse to support corporations who seek to promote harmful political goals.

Naomi Klein’s book This Changes Everything makes a solid case for how the urgency of climate change can bring together seemingly disparate activist groups for a common cause. Without clean air, clean water, clean soil, none of us are going to survive. It is the one thing we can all stand behind because it is necessary for us all to exist. In fact, the people who are going to suffer the most from climate change disasters are the people who have been disproportionately dealt more social and political burdens and disadvantages. The people who live in places where there is no infrastructure to handle climate change disaster, people who live in poverty all over the world, and people who have been subject to environmental racism are going to be the people who suffer the most. While I agree with Klein’s assertion, I don’t agree that she leaves animal rights activism out of her collective of movements. One thing that we all can do to take matters into our own hands is to either cut out completely or limit our use of animals for food and products. Animal agriculture plays a significant role in environmental degradation. Humans purposely bring trillions of animals into existence every year in order to eat them and use them for products. Those animals require a lot of land, water, and food as well as create a lot of waste and that waste pollutes the water, air, and soil as well as increase greenhouse gases. Not eating animals and not using products that contain animals is a way to help animals, help the environment, and help people.

Considering Justice

Justice claims seem to largely fall into two categories: (1) Political, legislative, economic, and social claims in regard to the structure, organization, and operation of public and private institutions. (2) Juridical and legal claims in regard to the criminal justice system. Regarding (1), the U.S. and much of the neoliberal world is structured and operates according to the theory of “distributive justice.” Under the distributive justice paradigm, benefits and burdens, privileges and disadvantages, are distributed throughout society. The distribution of rights, wealth, opportunities, etc. is largely based on an individual’s group identification. Regarding (2), for the vast majority of citizens, the U.S. operates according to a theory of “retributive justice.” The theory of “retributive justice” is opposed to the theory of “restorative justice.” “Restorative justice” is a theory that advocates restoring the communal bonds between the perpetrators and victims of crimes through a process of acknowledging grievances, apologizing, making reparations, and rehabilitation. “Retributive justice,” on the other hand, is based on the biblical ideology of “an eye for an eye.” It simply seeks to punish and exact retribution.

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.”  In agreement with King, I am highly suspicious of the “distributive justice” and “retributive justice” paradigms of the neoliberal U.S. nation-state, because these paradigms are based on a hierarchical and dichotomous way of thinking that ideologically atomizes individuals and leads to a logic of oppression. A logic of oppression operates within hierarchies where privileges and disadvantages, benefits and burdens, are disproportionately distributed based on one’s placement within the hierarchy. Within that logic, one’s place in the hierarchy is perceived as legitimate, because according to this ideology one’s place is either what one has chosen or is due to “natural ability”/”natural inability.” Thus, “justice” is interpreted as being the distribution of rights, wealth, opportunities, or lack thereof, in accordance with status hierarchy. Those higher on the hierarchy are thus perceived as being “justly” “entitled” to more privileges and benefits, while it is only “just” that those lower on the hierarchy be distributed more disadvantages and burdens. According to this logic, within the criminal justice system, retribution is demanded from those lower on the hierarchy, while one of the benefits and privileges those higher on the hierarchy receive is leniency. My suspicion (and anger) is directed toward the injustice of such paradigms that masquerade themselves as justice, thereby perpetuating the willful ignorance and denial of the “entitled,” and thus are a threat to justice everywhere.

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

Hope Wears Your Name Wrong: L’art neurose

Hope wears your name like a beautiful mask,

elaborately adorned, enigmatic, enticing, and deceptive.

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

and a laugh that bleeds an innocent malice.

Hope wears your name cruelly, like a betrayal,

a lie so sweet it becomes a sugar laced addiction.

Hope wears your name like an emptiness so desperate

to be filled with anything that nothing becomes something.

Hope wears your name like a spectacular failure,

an attempt so painstaking it resonates a temporal futility.

Hope wears your name like a meaninglessness,

so derealized that it even robs nihilism of its comfort.

Hope wears your name like an isolation,

a breathtakingly detached and omnipresent empathy.

Hope wears your name like a neurosis,

an obsessive passion for absurdity.

Hope wears your name wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[3] Ibid., pp. xv-xvi

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

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

[6] Ibid. p. 16

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid. p. 17

[9] Ibid. p. 18

[10] Ibid. pp. 18-19

[11] Ibid. pp. 19-20

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

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

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

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

[16] Jensen, pp. 89-90

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

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

[19] Ibid. p. 90

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

[21] Ibid., p. 12.

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

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

[24] hooks, Killing Rage, p. 39

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

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] hooks, Killing Rage, p. 39

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

[31] Ibid. p. 48

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

[33] Ibid., p. 164

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

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

[36] Ibid.

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

[38] Ibid.

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

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

[41] Ibid., p. 168

[42] Ibid., p. 169

[43] Ibid., p. 170

[44] Ibid., p. 173

[45] Ibid.

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

[47] Ibid., p. xvii

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

[49] Ibid., p. 158

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

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

[52] Ibid., p. 193

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

Benjamin’s Revolutionary Historical Materialism in Philosophy


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

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

Spatial Image and the Act of Remembrance: Fragment V

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion: A Habermasian Translation

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

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

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

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

[2] p. 255

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] p. 256

[6] Ibid.

[7] p. 257

[8] pp. 257-58

[9] p. 260

[10] Ibid.

[11] p. 264

[12] Ibid.

[13] p. 261

[14] p. 263

[15] p. 261

[16] pp. 261-62

[17] p. 262

[18] pp. 262-63

[19] p. 263

[20] Ibid.

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

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

[23] pp. 25 – 26

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

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

Butler’s Cohabitation and Benjamin’s Messianic Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[2] p. 71

[3] p. 72

[4] Ibid.

[5] p. 73

[6] p. 74

[7] Ibid.

[8] pp. 76 – 77

[9] p. 77

[10] Ibid.

[11] p. 79

[12] p. 80

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] p. 81

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] p. 82

[20] p. 83

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] p. 84

[24] p. 85

[25] pp. 86 – 87

[26] Ibid.

[27] p. 88

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

[29] p. 25

[30] pp. 25 – 26