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Amor Mundi: Fake News and Partisan Bias

Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.

Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.


Fake News and Partisan Bias

By Roger Berkowitz

A paper published on the University of Michigan website explores the impact of Fake news during the 2018 election cycle. This follows another paper I discussed last month arguing that false facts rarely change people’s overarching political commitments. In this new paper, the impact of Facebook fake news sites is diminished. The most interesting finding, however, is that while most people do accurately discriminate between fake and accurate news, those who are most heavily partisan do tend to believe fake news that confirms their biases.

Further, we examined a number of beliefs relating to the allegations of sexual assault made by Christine Blasey Ford against Brett Kavanaugh, President Trump’s nominee to the Supreme Court, in a Senate hearing. Specifically, we asked about the accuracy of two true statements (that the audience at a public rally laughed when Trump mocked gaps in Ford’s testimony and that Kavanaugh was questioned by police after a bar fight in college) and two false statements (that Ford’s allegations were refuted by the people she says were present during the assault and that Ford’s high school classmates recall hearing the story about the alleged assault at the time). As shown in Figure 12, we find notable partisan differences in belief in each statement that reflect how congenial they are to the party’s positions on Kavanaugh. Democrats were somewhat more likely to believe correctly that the audience laughed when Trump mocked Ford and that Kavanaugh was questioned by police after a fight in college. Partisan opinion was split on the false statements — Republicans were significantly less likely to believe that Ford’s high school classmates recall hearing the story about the alleged assault at the time, but more likely to believe that Ford’s allegations were refuted by the people she says were present during the assault. Finally, though politically knowledgeable respondents were more likely to believe the true statements, we also find that political knowledge polarized belief in false statements. Across parties, more knowledgeable partisans were more likely to endorse a congenial false statement and reject an uncongenial false statement.


Cultural Marxism and Antisemitism

By Samantha Hill

There is a debate brewing on the left about cultural Marxism. Samuel Moyn published an essay in the NY Times about the phrase “cultural Marxism” and how it is used as an antisemitic dog whistle. Moyn went so far as to claim that cultural Marxism does not exist, and argued that talking about cultural Marxism is a form of the “most noxious anti-Semitism.” The first part of his claim, that the phrase cultural Marxism is used as an anti-Semitic dog whistle is correct, but the idea that cultural Marxism does not exist at all is not true.

Alexander Zubatov offers a critique of Moyn’s piece in Tablet Magazine. He argues that the term cultural Marxism has been appropriated by bigots and conspiracists, but that cultural Marxism as a form of modern ideology does in fact exist. Zubatov writes:

Contrary to those polemicists who’d deny all legitimate uses of the term “cultural Marxism,” it has been in circulation for over forty years. Its meaning remains somewhat unclear and contested, but there is at least some commonality of understanding … the term “cultural Marxism” has a variety of uses—scholarly, ideological, and more popular…It is employed by extreme right-wing ideologues, such as Breivik, in grandiose theories that have little credibility, and it is used popularly in ways that show little understanding of its history or its original meaning. Nonetheless, it is has also been useful for mainstream scholars who tend, themselves, to be Marxists or sympathetic to Marxist thought—for example, Trent Schroyer and (more recently) Dennis Dworkin. The term, in other words, has perfectly respectable uses outside the dark, dank silos of the far right.

Most recently, Anastasia Berg and Jon Baskin at The Point contextualize the debate over cultural Marxism within our current political moment, reflecting on the controversy over the term and the way it is has been handled at elite publications. They point out that a few days later David Brooks employed the term in an editorial for the NY Times on the “generation gap” within American society that is dividing older liberals and younger activists who are being influenced by “the cultural Marxism that is not the lingua franca in the elite academy.” This would mean if we follow Moyn’s argument that Brooks himself is “an unwitting accomplice in an anti-Semitic plot.”

Berg and Baskin define cultural Marxism as a complicated term of art. For Marx, the world was divided into the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, and the history of class society was the history of class struggle. This framework for thinking about socio-economic political identity is extended to the realm of culture. But what does the term cultural Marxism mean? Is it real? And is it useful? In the most basic language cultural Marxism implies that the economic and political structures of a society influence cultural production.

In these three pieces we have three different approaches to a common term that’s been in circulation at least since 1973, but Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer were talking about the “Culture Industry” in Dialectic of Enlightenment in the early 1940s, thinking about the ways in which Nazi Propaganda spread so successfully, and the ways in which fascist ideology is imprinted on cultural reproduction. In this sense, it is difficult to separate antisemitism from cultural Marxism because cultural Marxism was developed in part to understand the emergence and force of antisemitism by German Jewish political thinkers.

One does not need to call themselves a cultural Marxist in order to appreciate the use of the term. In the most basic language cultural Marxism implies that the economic and political structures of a society influence cultural production.

Hannah Arendt appreciated Marx, but she was certainly not a Marxist in any sense of the term. She argues in her essay on “Culture and Politics”, citing Marx, that culture has been replaced by the “Entertainment Industry” and  “Mass Culture”. She writes,

If, however, the entertainment industry lays claim to products of culture—and this is exactly what happens within mass culture—the immense danger arises that the life process of society, which, like all life processes, insatiably incorporates everything it is offered into the biological circulation of its metabolism, begins literally to devour the products of culture. Of course, this does not happen when cultural products—books or images—are thrown into the market in the form of cheap reproductions and are as a result sold in large numbers; but it certainly does happen when the products of culture are being altered—rewritten, condensed, popularized, transformed into kitsch by means of reproduction—so they may be used by the entertainment industry. It is not the entertainment industry that is a sign of what we call “mass culture,” and what should more precisely be called the deterioration of culture. And it is not that this deterioration begins when everyone can buy the dialogues of Plato for pocket change. Rather, it begins when these products are changed to such an extent as to facilitate their mass retailing—a mass retailing that would otherwise be impossible.

Arendt argues that the socialization of culture leads to a form of “culture politics” that erodes the efficacy of the public realm, and that politics and culture are in conflict with one another but ultimately rely upon one another. For her, the socialization of culture leads to the erasure of the world that we share in common, flattening the plurality of the world, of the human condition. But ultimately culture would be lifeless without the freedom of the political. In the end, we need cultural goods to preserve the public realm.

If we think about cultural Marxism in this way, in its historical context, it is a concept that helps us to understand the process of socialization that Arendt was worried about, and one certainly does not need to be a Marxist to appreciate its utility.

Outside the Pale of the Law: Rightlessness on Reality TV in Christoph Schlingensief’s Bitte Liebt Österreich

By Max L. Feldman

“Ausländer Raus” said the sign, black and white in block capitals. “Foreigners Out.” An unambiguous, if unrealistic, slogan like this belongs to extreme right rallies with skinheads doing “Sieg Heil” salutes. The last place you would expect to see a sign like this is a European tourist destination. That is, however, exactly what provocative theatre director, filmmaker, and performance artist Christoph Schlingensief (1960-2010) did in the performance Bitte Liebt Österreich (Please Love Austria) for Vienna’s Festwochen culture festival in June 2000.

For Bitte Liebt Österreich, Schlingensief set up a “public concentration camp” made of steel shipping containers outside Vienna’s elegant Opera House. Following the format of then-new TV series Big Brother, twelve participants—all asylum seekers—entered the containers and were filmed round-the-clock. Footage was shown online, and the public were invited to vote out their “least favorite.” Schlingensief promised the public that one would be deported at the end of each day and the winner would receive Austrian citizenship if someone was willing to marry them. Placed on top of the containers, visible from the historic Ringstrasse, was a sign reading “Ausländer Raus.”
The result was public outrage. A crowd gathered outside the container-complex; some amused, others irate. There were unflattering newspaper headlines throughout Europe. All this is captured in Paul Poet’s documentary Ausländer Raus: Schlingensiefs Container (2002), including footage of the events, news reports, and interviews with project manager Claudia Kaloff, philosopher Burghart Schmidt, Berlin Volksbühne dramaturg Carl Hegemann, and Schlingensief himself. The most revealing parts of the film, however, are Schlingensief’s interactions with the Viennese public and interviews with incensed right-wing politicians.

The political context is all-important. The 1999 Austrian parliamentary elections led to a coalition between the Catholic-conservative Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) and Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ). The social democrats (SPÖ) narrowly came in first. A humiliated ÖVP came in third place behind an FPÖ whose Nazi ties are well known. Schlingensief’s intention with Bitte Liebt Österreich was not merely to incite public fury, but to lampoon deep public xenophobia in a country uneasy with its own history of Nazi collaboration.

Schlingensief certainly showed how contemporary fascism feeds on entertainment culture, but the genius of Bitte Liebt Österreich was its theatricalization of two conditions described by Hannah Arendt: the “rightlessness” of refugees and the “juridical death” suffered by concentration camp inmates. Bitte Liebt Österreich shows how refugees live “outside the pale of the law” , bringing the personal crisis of statelessness into the public realm of public appearances. Schlingensief shows how this condition reflects not only Arendt’s account of the crisis of “inalienable” human rights, but Austria’s fragile image of itself as a humane post-fascist democracy. Treating Bitte Liebt Österreich as a reading of Arendt’s categories means first placing it in the context of Schlingensief’s oeuvre and Austrian political culture.

By the time of Bitte Liebt Österreich, Schlingensief had been making provocative films for over two decades. 100 Years of Adolf Hitler: The Last Hour in the Führer’s Bunker (1989) dramatizes Hitler’s final moments with an amusing twist. Schlingensief mixes the tone of trashy vampire films with “mockumentaries”, using one shaky handheld camera, a single light, and regular shots of the clapboard with directorial instructions. “Action!” we hear, just before Hitler’s mistress, a sultry gyrating vampire bride, injects him with cyanide. The German Chainsaw Massacre (1990), meanwhile, satirizes German reunification in the style of American “slasher” films, particularly The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974).

After Bitte Liebt Österreich, Schlingensief would go on to make Quiz 3000 (2002), which satirised TV quiz shows with cognitively impaired contestants asked questions like “Please sort the following concentration camps from north to south” and Freakstars 3000 (2003), which took on American Idol¬-style talent shows by getting two dozen people from an assisted-living home for the mentally disabled to compete for spots in a new band.

Austrian political culture during the ÖVP-FPÖ coalition was a gift for Schlingensief, as if designed with his intervention in mind. The coalition was the first time a party with extreme right ties gained power in post-war Europe. This came, moreover, after the ten year leadership of charismatic former nationalist youth movement leader Jörg Haider between 1986-96. Under Haider, whose strategy involved making himself seem like exactly the kind of renegade celebrity “reality TV” would go on to produce, FPÖ went from a fringe party of Nazi apologists to within two per cent of being the Alpine republic’s largest party.

Formed in 1955, FPÖ aimed to integrate more than half-a-million former Nazi Party members into mainstream Austrian politics without creating an anti-democratic opposition. Austria was, at this point, pushing what came to be called the Opfermythos (victim-myth). This was the claim, supported by the official Red-White-Red Handbook (1946), circulated among political leaders at local and national level, that Austria was “the first victim [of Nazi aggression], abandoned by the world.”

After a swift, ruthless internal putsch, the image-conscious Haider gained leadership of the FPÖ in 1986. Carefully balancing an anti-corruption crusade with an Österreich Zuerst (Austria First) “strong-man” platform, Haider appealed not only to the pan-Germanist and national socialist party faithful, but a younger generation raised on the excitement of post-war consumer society. FPÖ now sought votes from yuppie nouveau riches and a disillusioned working class with populist anti-establishment slogans criticising the nepotism of the two main parties and arguing for punitive anti-immigrant laws. This found support in the Neue Kronen Zeitung, Austria’s largest newspaper, clearly relaxed about Haider’s neo-Nazi connections and praise for Waffen SS war veterans.

Bitte Liebt Österreich was a piece of public drama. It was public in Arendt’s dual sense. Not only was it widely publicised, “seen and heard by everybody” given its position outside a major tourist destination, but it took place in the shared space that makes political action possible. Though it takes place beyond the clearly circumscribed space of the theatre, it is drama because, as Arendt says, “the theatre is the political art par excellence; only there is the political sphere of human life transposed into art.” Like painting pictures or telling stories, theatre transforms individual experiences into things that can be seen and heard by others. Plays make the conflicts of collective life visible to everyone, bringing the hidden ambiguities of political life into the public space of appearances. Schlingensief does this in the most public place of all, using two powerful symbols of specifically Austrian problems: concentration camps, and the existence of refugees, the treatment of whom offers Austria a chance to reconcile itself to its own past.

The participants—an Iraqi psychologist, two Kosovans (a beautician and a gym teacher), three journalists from China and Zimbabwe, two students from Cameroon and Sri Lanka, a Kurdish secretary, a Nigerian car mechanic, and a Chinese marine biologist—were all interviewed in Austrian refugee camps beforehand. Schlingensief repeats this during his crowd interactions, but the Austrian public clearly did not understand.

Outside, the containers’ walls were plastered with FPÖ campaign quotations: “China statt Wiener?” (“China replacing the Viennese?”), “Wien darf nicht Chicago werden!” (Vienna cannot become Chicago!”), and “Eine Gesellschaft, die auf keiner gemeinsamen Wertebasis beruht, führt unweigerlich zum Chaos” (“A society based on no shared values will inevitably lead to chaos.”) Inside, participants woke to the sound of Jörg Haider’s speeches denouncing immigrants as criminals, homewreckers, and paedophiles. Only the FPÖ, he claims, can guarantee Austrian citizens a calm and secure life by ending all immigration.

“Step right up, ladies and gentleman!” Schlingensief shouts through a megaphone, stoking the crowd, “enter the peep show!” Schlingensief let the public gaze at the inmates through a hole like they were zoo animals, encouraged tourists to photograph the slogans and send them as postcards and, at one point, claims it is FPÖ policy, endorsed by the Krone, to punch tourists and run away shouting “Foreigners out!” “This is the newly-opened Nazi film factory!” he declares. Schlingensief’s interaction with the public that is most revealing, however.

An elderly man unironically dressed in full Austrian military uniform with medals and sashes, agrees with Schlingensief’s calls for public beheadings of foreigners. A middle-aged man with a discernible accent claims Yugoslavian refugees are ruining Austrian schools. “It’s the waste that’s coming up, not the intellectuals” he says, “They won’t even appreciate us!” He then admits, to the derision of those around him, that his surname is Turkovic. Others complain that Schlingensief is making Austrians look stupid while an elderly man berates a suited businessman, claiming that all of “his kind” are drug dealers and he should “go back to Africa.” The whole performance almost had to be cancelled early because socialist students on their weekly anti-government demonstration around the Ringstrasse stormed the containers, demanding a meeting with the “prisoners.” “We are here to liberate you!” they righteously declared. Liberation from what, exactly?

The modern problem of statelessness, for Arendt, begins with the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian and Tsarist empires. This produced hundreds of thousands of minorities in new nations (mainly Germans and Jews in Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, and Romania). Because they lived “outside normal legal protection” , their rights had to be guaranteed by the League of Nations’ Minority Treaties. Statelessness is a more extreme condition, however, because the stateless have no right to live or work in the country they are in. Not only do all their actions break the law, these people are illegal in their very being. This shows the central paradox of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen.

The “inalienable” Rights of Man assume an “abstract” human being—that there exists a human being as such—because no authority guarantees them other than “Man” itself. This becomes meaningless when there are people with no uniquely individual qualities beyond their basic humanity, living in a condition of what Aristotle called zoe (animal life) as opposed to bios (the kind of life particular to human beings in a political community).

This situation was forced upon people in concentration camps, which first kills “the juridical person in man.” The first step on the road to totally dominating human beings, Arendt says, is to remove legal protections and force other, non-totalitarian, states and organisations to accept this as fact. “By placing the concentration camp outside the normal penal system,” Arendt explains, “and by selecting its inmates outside the normal juridical procedure in which a definite crime entails a predictable penalty,” totalitarian states are able to stop human beings from being treated as human beings at all, reducing them to lumps of fleshy matter to be controlled and eventually exterminated. “Under no circumstances,” runs the logic, “must the concentration camp become a calculable punishment for definite offenses.”

With Bitte Liebt Österreich, Schlingensief dramatizes the crisis of human rights by simulating “juridical death” among people who are already stateless. Appearances, for Arendt, make up reality because they can be seen and heard not only by ourselves, but by others too. The condition of rightlessness is, however, manifested first and foremost by “the deprivation of a place in the world which makes opinions significant and actions effective.” The stateless live in a peculiar kind of unreality because they no longer live in a shared public realm with other people who see and speak and act, where they can be recognized as equals. “They are deprived,” Arendt writes, “not of the right to freedom, but of the right to action; not of the right to think whatever they please, but of the right to opinion.”

Schlingensief takes people who have been silenced, whose voices and opinions mean nothing, and mimics the very place where these conditions are at their most extreme, in a country not only historically responsible for fascist mass extermination, but who had just elected a government consisting of people who denied any responsibility for it.

“What kind of understanding is it,” Schlingensief asks during a straight-to-camera interaction, “to believe art just walks into the world, completely changing everything for better or worse?” Thinking of art in these terms, he says, makes one wonder why it hasn’t been replaced by politics.
For Schlingensief, art is not about making nice, enlightening pictures that can be quickly and painlessly consumed. Just as he thinks this concept of art solves no problems, neither do traditional forms of political protest, which merely state what people are against. These quick-fix concepts of art and politics are usually asked for by the sort of people who will never change anything anyway. Instead, he says, you have to “produce contradictions.” Schlingensief says he wants to make “a multitude of systems to gather in a dance.” This dance becomes the picture, which becomes the picture, which can be publicly visible for a day, a week, decades or centuries, regardless of whether it changes in the world or the inner lives of individuals.

Christoph Maria Schlingensief died of lung cancer in 2010. He was 49. In an obituary written for the Süddeutsche Zeitung, his friend, Nobel Prize-winning novelist Elfriede Jelinek wrote: “Schlingensief was one of the greatest artists who ever lived. I always thought one like him cannot die. It is as if life itself had died. He was not really a stage director (in spite of Bayreuth and Parsifal), he was everything: he was the artist as such. He has coined a new genre that has been removed from each classification. There will be nobody like him.”

[1] Duncan Morrow, ‘Jörg Haider and the new FPÖ: Beyond the Democratic Pale?’ in Politics of the Extreme Right: From the Margins to the Mainstream, ed. by Paul Hainsworth (London: Pinter, 2000); Ruth Wodak & Anton Pelinka (eds.), The Haider Phenomenon in Austria (Piscatawney: Transaction, 2002)

[2] Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) (London: Penguin, 2016), pp.349-98, 573-603

[3] Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, p.362

[4] Duncan Morrow, ‘Jörg Haider and the new FPÖ’

[5] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (1958), 2nd edn., (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), pp.50-2

[6] Arendt, The Human Condition, p.188

[7] Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, p.359

[8] This distinction is central to the work of Giorgio Agamben, particularly Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (1995), trans. by Daniel Heller-Roazen, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998) and State of Exception (2003), trans. by Kevin Attrell (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), which develop Aristotle’s distinction between bios and zoe from Politics (1278b, 23-31) under the influence of Arendt and Foucault

[9] Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, p.586

[10] Ibid, pp.586-7

[11] Arendt, The Human Condition, p.50

[12] Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, pp.387-8

[13] Ibid, p.388

Quote of the Week: The Unquestioned Optimism of Futurists

By Nikita Nelin

“The subterranean stream of Western history had finally come to the surface and usurped the dignity of our tradition. This is the reality in which we live. And this is why all efforts to escape from the grimness of the present into nostalgia for a still intact past, or into the anticipated oblivion of a better future are vain.” [1]

— Hannah Arendt

Our immediate world seems divided into two categories. On the one side we have what the progressives label the last vestige of a conservative and isolationist past, the war-hawks turned border guardians who believe that if we are to avoid a slide into irreparable chaos we must return to the more clearly articulated divisions of the past. On the other side stands the promise of the tech industry, permeated with the futurist belief that technology and “better design” can solve our social needs and deepest anxieties. Politics, which as an outgrowth of speech bears the burden of diplomacy, is failing to negotiate this opposition, and instead is being usurped by the divide.

Hannah Arendt’s political thought reflects the experience of her time, when the theory of a ‘future man’ and a perfected society (Fascism and Communism), and the prior status quo (capitalism), combated, their oppositional antagonism placing the world onto the near brink of extinction. Arendt came to believe that to love the world one must see it as it is, without partisanship. Her philosophy was not middle of the road, rather, it called for patience and thinking. She asks us to consider both the liberty and weight of tradition, as well as the benefits of what technological and social discoveries offer, alongside their dangers.

In our Brexit-Trump world it is too easy to see where the traditionalists espouse their control. The threat of migration, caused by political destabilization and climate change (though often denied by these same authoritarian traditionalists), coupled with a shift in the labor systems, has propelled a political populism which promises a return to a pastoral past that may or may not have existed prior. And while it is necessary to challenge this populism argument, it is equally important to question the optimism of the tech movement and its attendants. Without doing so we never get to the poison coded within their optimism, the basic flaw within the economic system that causes the actors of the system to ignore the quite real potential of their choices.

A key factor here is the mandate toward competition interpreted from the market, and the pressure it places onto any aspiring idea and technological innovation, and the actors who tend to them. It simply does not allow for us to sincerely, and thoughtfully, consider the consequences of innovation. This blinding rush towards the new and the next is the “subterranean stream” which in the name of progress pushes us to ignore the potential impact this “progress” may have on the structure of the human condition. This suggests that something is broken in the basic system that governs world affairs.

This brokenness just played out in Davos, Switzerland. In his New York Times article “The Hidden Agenda of the Davos Elite,” Kevin Roose exposes this break and what it can mean for the future. “In Davos,” Roose writes, “executives tend to speak about automation as a natural phenomenon over which they have no control, like hurricanes or heat waves. They claim that if they don’t automate jobs as quickly as possible, their competitors will.” Roose describes the Janus face of the business sector in relationship to automation. This is not a vision of liberation through technology. This is a vision where technology has married corporate instincts, where it is, ultimately, driven by them. Everyone at Davos knows that automation is coming, as fast as technology allows. Everyone knows that when addressing it in public they must voice concern for its overall social impact. And yet, in private, everyone has already adhered to the bottom line, and they protect themselves from the consequences of this adherence by the reality of market rules. “Keep up or die,” is the motto of business. Any global player wishing to operate by a more humanely centered principle risks annihilation. And so this technology risks becoming just another tool appropriated by the instincts of the market place.

Of course, executives state that the market ecosystem is figuring it out. “One common argument made by executives,” Roose writes, “is that workers whose jobs are eliminated by automation can be ‘reskilled’ to perform other jobs in an organization. They offer examples like Accenture, which claimed in 2017 to have replaced 17,000 back-office processing jobs without layoffs.” But programs such as this “may be the exception that proves the rule… A report by the world economic forum [last] month estimated that of the 1.37 million workers who are projected to be fully displaced by automation in the next decade, only one in four can be profitably reskilled by private sector programs.”

The tech sector subscribes to the belief that the technology itself will provide the answer, that the push should be toward greater innovation. That same 2017 report by Accenture stresses that AI can double economic growth and increase worker productivity by 40% by 2035. And this would be all fine and good if these incentives were not so clearly shareholder focused. The approaching labor genocide can be an opportunity to reframe how we define value, how we distribute the rewards of progress, giving us an opportunity to stress work above labor, but the psychological structure governing our market place remains unchanged.

Another example of the innovation race is found in a recent New Yorker article, “The Grand Plan to Clean the Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” where Carolyn Karmann profiles Boyan Slat, a young Dutch entrepreneur who has proposed an inspiring method to rid the ocean of plastics. He has designed a giant machine to travel the oceans and collect plastic, funding it privately and publicly. But the machine keeps failing. When one engineer on the project voiced its impossibility, he was elbowed out. “We don’t have any glass-half-empty people,” said Joost Dubois, the chief communications officer for Slat’s startup. The money keeps rolling in and Slat has become a TED Talk celebrity, even as others have voiced concern over a misdirected effort. Slat carries on. “We don’t say, ‘Ban all the plastic’ — we sort of provide an alternative that’s better, that’s exciting, that fits into a world view that you can be excited about,” he says. And so, both money and attention continue to pour in, because this is an “exciting” narrative.

The image of a young entrepreneur with an “exciting” solution is captivating. We want to root for the ability of our will to master our conditions. We want to be relieved by Slat’s motto that “nothing cannot be remediated with good physics and engineering and money.“ But in the excitement we tend to forego the effort of reality-seeing for the privilege of joining the unbreakable optimism of a “future thinker” which affirms the impulse to conquer the present rather than have to work with it.

There is a perfect loop at play here where the individuals are shaped by the world which they in turn build out. We reward the Lindbergh archetype, driven by the dream of his singular vision, heroically dismissing all naysayers and growing bolder in his optimism in the face of every obstacle. But then we feel ensnarled in the system this personality affirms. The system creates the individual, the individual upholds the system, and back. And even when such individuals try to break from the cycle, as Anand Giridharadas depicts in his book “Winners Take All,” the break is only from the infrastructure and not the principles that drive it, as the hubris migrates from ‘titan of industry’ to ‘future thinker’ to charity funding ‘change-making’ elite. Even if well-meaning, the hubris embedded in this is worth examination. Generations of conditioning by the system makes it almost impossible to break with the system, and we are all participants — hero, bystander, or villain.

The race towards the future, propelled onward by the tradition of an uncompromising market, the unquestioned faith into the omnipotence of innovation, the cultic optimism that creates a groupthink firewall, all show an absence of the patience and thought required to see the world as it is. For Arendt, the rise of technology signaled the urge in us to escape “the human condition,” and thus she proposed the “reconsideration of the human condition from the vintage point of our newest experiences and our most recent fears.” [2] It still stands today that if we fail to do so, if we refuse to see the world as it is, we are likely to build new, more intelligent, shinier structures, which only replicate the failed structures of yesterday. We will never love the now if we refuse to sit with all the questions of being here.

[1] Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, p. iv.

[2] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, p. 5.

Journal Feature: The Fragility of Persons and the Need for the Imaginary Domain

By Drucilla Cornell

This was first published in the HA Journal volume VI

In this essay, I will argue that embodied human beings demand many forms of so-called “public support” in order to engage in the project that I have called becoming a person. Privacy, both in Anglo-European philosophy and in the jurisprudence of the United States Supreme Court, has always turned on the notion of the individual as a given and the legal person as an expression of this idea of a self-contained subject inextricably tied to private property and literal spaces of retreat. Feminism is not antiprivacy in any simple sense; instead, a feminist rethinking of what is of value in privacy demands that the entire discourse of the private and the public be rethought, particularly because of the fragility of our lives as embodied human beings. In 1995, in a text called The Imaginary Domain, I argued that we need an entirely new political and ethical rhetoric to adequately defend crucial rights for which feminists have fought.1

Here I am going to focus on the right to abortion, but it is only one of many examples. I argue in that text—and I still hold to this position—that the imaginary domain is the moral, legal, and ethical space that embodied and sexuate human beings need in order to play out their different personas. This domain enables us to be the source of our own imaginary and narratives of how we have embodied ourselves as sexuate beings who inevitably see themselves through an unconscious imago that can be endlessly played with, re-preformed, and ultimately re-narrated in the infinite project of becoming a person. Key to this argument is the idea that the person is not a given but rather a project that we pursue throughout our lives. This project demands at least three minimum conditions of individuation. They are as follows: “1) bodily integrity, 2) access to symbolical forms sufficient to achieve linguistic skills permitting the differentiation of oneself from others, and 3) the protection of the imaginary domain itself.”2 These minimum conditions of individuation could turn us to a much more profound understanding of transindividuality—the notion that human interactions make us who we are—as it has been particularly embodied in African philosophy. Unfortunately, it is beyond the scope of this essay to go into tran-sindividuality further. I will now discuss the way I use the word person.

A person is what shines through a mask even though the concept of the mask is the usual association made with the word persona, which in Latin means literally “shine through.” For a person to be able to shine through she must first be able to imagine herself as a whole, even if she knows that she can never truly succeed in becoming a whole person, or indeed succeed at differentiating between the mask and the “self.” The equal worth of each one of us demands as a matter of legal equality an equivalent basis for the chance to transform ourselves into the individuated beings we think of as persons. The project of the imaginary domain is to synchronize the values of equality and freedom, and in a certain sense to rethink what is of value in the legal notion of privacy. That “the personal is political” (a famous saying in the third wave of feminism) is of course in no way part of an antiprivacy movement; rather, it is deeply rooted in the long history of how erotic trans-formation, challenges to heteronormativity, and the viscous misogynistic abjection of the feminine must always be part of radical transformation. In The Spirit of Revolution: Beyond the Dead Ends of Man, Stephen Seely and I make an extended argument about how radical transformation is integral to any meaningful revolution.3


The imaginary domain as a legal right would, of course, be only one aspect of such sweeping transformation. But as I will now argue, it does allow us to defend the right to abortion on the basis of equality. Justice Blackmun in his original decision in Roe v. Wade found he faced a dilemma. He could not defend the right to abortion on the basis of privacy. And why was that the case? Because most of our decisions (“our” being the United States Supreme Court) have defined privacy as the right to have a space, in which the state has no business interfering.4 Equality was also not a possible basis for Blackmun, because equality under our jurisprudence turns on comparisons between men and women, and pregnancy is a real difference between the sexes, and all attempts to find an equivalent condition in men, such as heart attack or prostate cancer, seemed to falter or to be outright ridiculous. To quote Justice Blackmun,

The pregnant woman cannot be isolated in her privacy. She carries an embryo and, later, a fetus, if one accepts the medical definitions of the developing young in the human uterus. See Dorland’s Medical Dictionary 478–479, 547 (24th edition 1965). The situation therefore is inherently different from marital intimacy, or bedroom possession of obscene material, or marriage, or procreation, or education, with which Eisenstadt and Griswold, Stanley, Loving, Skinner, and Peirce and Meyer were respectively concerned.5

Blackmun has been criticized by the left and the right, and indeed the middle, for the incoherence of his decision, but in fact he did not have the jurisprudential resources to defend the right to abortion—and let me emphasize the “to,” because our Supreme Court, and indeed our Constitution, has not been comfortable with imposing positive obligations on the part of the state. In the first trimester, the “public” nature of the abortion led the court to include the doctor in the process of a decision. In the second trimester, Blackmun realized that women might need much more extensive medical care. What is often forgotten in Blackmun’s judgment is that the second trimester begins before “viability,” when the baby can supposedly live outside the mother’s body. His primary concern was to provide effective health care for second-trimester abortions. It was only in the third trimester that the state could weigh in the interest of the infant against the right of the mother: since fetuses are not persons under our constitutional jurisprudence, they do not have rights.6 In a series of judgments following Roe, Webster, and Casey, the court allowed states to enjoin public facilities and employees from providing abortion. They did so on the basis that such restrictions did not infringe on the woman’s right to “choose.”7 In the case of Casey further restrictions were placed on how and under what conditions women could get even first-trimester abortions.8

Of course, today, the state’s interest in protecting fetal life now goes all the way through pregnancy. The language of choice, of course, is completely inadequate: if a woman is terminating an unwanted pregnancy, she obviously didn’t choose to get pregnant. Our bodies are not our own, and to avoid the horror of abortions done illegally in terrifying isolated conditions with “medical equipment” such as coat hangers Blackmun knew that he had to provide women with actual material support in order for them to have safe abortions. The right to an abortion obviously goes way beyond the notion of choice. And yet the critics are right that Blackmun’s judgment falters into incoherence, despite its creativity, precisely because privacy and gender equality jurisprudence could not give an adequate account of the right to abortion. But I would argue that the equal protection (to use legal language) of the minimum conditions of individuation would allow the right to abortion to be justified as a matter of equality. To do so, we have to understand exactly why the body, from the very beginning, needs to be able to protect itself as a whole, even when that “who” is indeed imaginary.

In the text The Imaginary Domain, I relied on Jacques Lacan to argue that the infant needs the mirroring of others in order to see himself or herself as whole. This projection of bodily integration is necessary to avoid psychosis and, as Lacan always tells us, the ego in the imaginary is a bodily ego.9 From the beginning, then, the infant is dependent on others for a projected wholeness. It is not only through the mirroring process that the infant comes to have an imagined bodily coherence—and yes, it is imagined, which is why we need the space of the imaginary domain. The body’s coherence depends on the future anteriority of the projection, in that what is yet to be imagined is already given. The infant, then, does not recognize a self that is already there in the mirror. Instead, the self is constituted in and through the mirroring process as other to its reality of bodily disorganization, and does this by having itself mirrored by others as a whole. The Lacanian account allows us to understand just how fragile the achievement of individuation is and why we so desperately need the protection of minimum conditions of individuation.

The denial of the right to abortion should be understood as a serious symbolic assault on a woman’s sense of self precisely because it thwarts the projection of bodily integration and places the woman’s body in the hands of the imagination of others who would deny her coherence by separating her womb from herself. It is not an exaggeration, then, to say that the denial of the right to abortion can be understood as the symbolic dismemberment of women’s bodies. It is only in the worst kind of masculine fantasy that wombs wander. The wrong, as I have described it, begins long before any woman actually becomes pregnant, because our bodies are taken away from our own imagined projection of the meaning of our sexuate being.10 Pregnancy is not like prostate cancer or a heart attack; it is a unique condition. But if we are to equally protect minimum conditions of individuation, then we can justify the right to abortion and all the facilities needed to support it on the basis of equality. The right to always demands that we recognize the public nature of the support we need, even if we are “healthy,” to have our imaginary domain protected, so that our sexuate being and other forms of primary identification are ours to narrate, not the state’s. This is also a basic matter of freedom, because it is in the case of abortion that women are given the freedom of imagination to narrate the meaning of their own experience. Some feminists had difficulties with any women who said that they regretted their abortion or found it a tragic experience. In order to defend the right to choose, it seems that abortion had to be labeled a fairly trivial matter. But under the imaginary domain and bodily integrity, it is the woman who has, as part of her right, the ability to narrate her own imagined projection of the meaning of the bodily experience. I agree with Justice O’Connor that viability became a very incoherent standard for when the state’s interest in the fetus could trump the woman’s right as defended in Roe v. Wade.11 My response, today as in 1995, is that there is one coherent standard, and that is to recognize the right to abortion all the way through the cutting of the umbilical cord; then the baby is truly outside of the woman’s body.

On what basis did I, and do I, defend the imaginary domain and mini mum conditions for individuation? I still think Lacan is helpful, but we could also get to the fragility of the human body and the need for public support of it through other intellectual heritages, such as African philosophy, as I suggested earlier, and its notion of transindividuality.12 But how does one judge whether or not the imaginary domain is right? The answer is that it is an aesthetic idea in Immanuel Kant’s sense. Famously, Kant argues that the great ideas of reason cannot be known but only configured, and therefore the reflexive judgment on these ideals cannot have rules that tell us definitely what is right or wrong.13 The promise of the imaginary domain and the minimum conditions of individuation was that they could synchronize the values of freedom and equality in that emotionally fraught sphere of life we call sex and sexuate being, but it would always be applicable, as I have argued, to other forms of primary identification such as language rights. Whether or not this synchronization has been achieved demands judgment as to whether justifying abortion in this way empowers women to give their own meaning to their abortions, to imagine their own bodies, and to represent their “sex” with joy within their difference.

  1. Drucilla Cornell, The Imaginary Domain: Abortion, Pornography and Sexual Harassment (London: Routledge, 1995), 3–31.
  2. Ibid., 4.
  3. Drucilla Cornell and Stephen Seely, The Spirit of Revolution: Beyond the Dead Ends of Man (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2016), 1–14.
  4. Drucilla Cornell, The Philosophy of the Limit (London: Routledge, 1992), 147–54.
  5. Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973).
  6. Cornell, The Imaginary Domain, 55–64.
  7. Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, 492 U.S. 490 (1989).
  8. Planned Parenthood v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833 (1992).
  9. Cornell, The Imaginary Domain, 38–43.
  10. Ibid., 43–55.
  11. Ibid., 65–69.
  12. Cornell and Seely, The Spirit of Revolution, 132–42.
  13. Immanuel Kant and Norman Kemp Smith, Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (Boston:Bedford, 1929).

Video Feature: Panel: Is the Private Political?

A panel discussion between Drucilla Cornell, Lori Marso, Morris Kaplan, and moderator Dawn Herrera Helphand, for “Is The Private Political,” a one-day colloquium on Natality, Laboring, and the Body which occurred on April 21, 2017 at Bard College, hosted by the Hannah Arendt Center

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Posted on 8 February 2019 | 11:11 am

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