“The Possibilities for Resistance”
In part of his dissenting opinion from the majority in Obergefell v. Hodges, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas replied to Justice Kennedy’s assertion in the majority opinion that “the lifelong union of a man and a woman has promised nobility and dignity to all persons, regardless of their station in life.”1 (3) While Kennedy (nor Thomas later) does not explicitly elaborate upon what “dignity” means, his observations a couple of sentences later suggests that marriage confers a status of flourishing: “Its dynamic allows two people to find a life that could not be found alone, for a marriage becomes greater than just the two persons. Rising from the most basic human needs, marriage is essential to our most profound hopes and aspirations.” (3) In this vein, then, the majority opinion presents a case for the government’s role in contributing to that flourishing; flourishing is a sociopolitical reality and freedom toward which governmental power contributes.
In response Thomas argued that the Court’s decision to mandate the legality of same-sex marriages in all states actually represented a rejection of the idea as captured in the Declaration of Independence “that human dignity is innate.” Thomas’s assertion about “human dignity” is supported in part by the Declaration’s statement that “all men are created equal” and “endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.” (17) He continued:
The corollary of that principle is that human dignity cannot be taken away from the government. Slaves did not lose their dignity (any more than they lost their humanity) because the government allowed them to be enslaved. Those held in internment camps did not lose their dignity because the government confined them. And those denied governmental benefits certainly do not lose their dignity because the government denies them those benefits. The government cannot bestow dignity, and it cannot take it away. (17)
What this passage illuminates is a belief that dignity, or flourishing, is not as much about one’s bodily status but about an internal attitude or ontological status that transcends the embodied conditions in which one finds one’s self. Thomas implies that such flourishing is independent from the exercise of sociopolitical power; that freedom is more or less an internal reality that cannot be determined by one’s social status; and that the government does not provide (or more precisely, cannot provide) the conditions for flourishing, which are separate from the reality of whether one is actually physically free (a reality, as he suggests through his examples, that is mandated almost exclusively by the powers of the state).
However the conversation around #BlackLivesMatter and the rightful pushback against the assertion that #AllLivesMatter brought into stark contrast that the flourishing of black Americans is not merely a matter of such dignity as defined. As Syndicate’s recent panel on Charleston clearly reminds us, the state and Christianity have intertwined themselves throughout United States history to reinforce the institutions of chattel slavery and racism; and the double consciousness of #BlackLivesMatter is a powerful example of agential resistance/insistence in response to the “cultural production of evil”2 that would reduce black life to death.
These conversations magnify the careful theoretical and theological work undertaken in Cynthia R. Nielsen’s Foucault, Douglass, Fanon, and Scotus in Dialogue: On Social Construction and Freedom. The juxtaposition of these four thinkers provides not only an interdisciplinary platform where we can more clearly limn the (perhaps expected) differences but also illumines how those differences can lead to startling and interesting observations about the mutually constitutive parameters of our identity and freedom. By strategically beginning her analysis with Michel Foucault, she explores the possibilities of how his theoretical investigations into power, often thought to leave no room for agency, can actually open up possibilities for the exercise of sociopolitical power toward freedom because he frames power not as an essence, but within a matrix of mutually constitutive relations.
At the same time, she identifies how his resistance to transhistorical constructions of power (part of the common critique that his construal of power is overly socially deterministic) presents a problem in helping us understand the basis for our capacities for resistance. By turning to the works and lives of Frederick Douglass and Frantz Fanon, Nielsen both complicates and enhances Foucauldian conceptualizations of power. Douglass’s narrative especially provides a rebuke to Thomas’s contention that the flourishing of an individual is solely internally generated. In the final sections of Nielsen’s work, Duns Scotus becomes a surprising conversation partner in providing a “thicker” ontological basis by which to understand the role of free will in the construction of freedom. Nielsen argues via the Subtle Doctor that there is space for the exercise of agency while also acknowledging the historically contingent nature of our existence.
Each of the panelists in this symposium focuses on one of Nielsen’s four conversation partners, resulting in a panel that explores the rich implications of Nielsen’s argument and provides avenues for further dialogue. While Michelle Wolff agrees with the possibilities for political resistance in Foucault’s analysis, she hesitates to fully subscribe to Nielsen’s view of anthropology because of the ways in which the definition of the subject has often been circumscribed with white, male normativity. Timothy Golden offers another angle on Douglassian dialectic by focusing on how the production of knowledge is both the site of existential despair but also provides the possibility for resistance. Timothy McGee explores a problematic regarding Fanon’s turn to universal humanism by asking whether an embodied construction of “otherwise” freedom can open up a way to incorporate vulnerability into his vision of humanism. Finally, Peter S. Dillard hones in on a possible incoherence in Scotus’s conception of freedom that may make Scotus’s view of the will potentially problematic for Nielsen’s purposes.
The result of these different engagements are, I believe, a productive response to the invitation at the end of Nielsen’s work to improvise upon her own thoughtful offering, an invitation that we extend to you for the next two weeks. While the heart of Nielsen’s work is theological, her engagement with those outside of theology proper enriches and pushes her analysis to ask new questions about how we embody, perceive, and understand power within theology.
Peter S. Dillard
About the Author
Cynthia R. Nielsen is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Dallas. Nielsen’s work is interdisciplinary and her research interests include philosophical hermeneutics, aesthetics, social and political philosophy, philosophy of race, and the philosophy of music. She is the author of Foucault, Douglass, Fanon, and Scotus in Dialogue: On Social Construction and Freedom (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013) and Interstitial Soundings. Philosophical Reflections on Improvisation, Practice, and Self- Making (forthcoming 2015, Cascade Books/Wipf & Stock Publishers).