Symposium Introduction

“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.


Michelle Wolff

Timothy Golden

Timothy McGee

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).

  1. Obergefell et al. v. Hodges, Director, Ohio Department of Health, et al. Accessed at

    http:/C:/dev/home/ Following page references refer to page number of the opinion written.

  2. Ibid.



Black Lives Matter, Hands Up Don’t Shoot, I Can’t Breathe


What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground.
—Genesis 4:10

Last August, photos of eager, bright-eyed children flooded my Facebook newsfeed. A petite girl, with her strawberry blonde hair neatly pinned, primly crosses her legs next to a purple backpack and matching lunchbox under the caption, “Another day, another first day of school.” This marks the occasion as perfunctory. For the young girl’s sign, “first day of pre k 2014–2015,” announces her customary and fluid integration into society. Hers is not an accomplishment, so much as a fulfillment of expectations.

Another friend of mine juxtaposed a photo of her son standing tall, proudly showing a “welcome to preschool” sign, against a pensive girl cupping a sheet of cardboard bearing read handprints and the text “don’t shoot.” The mother’s caption lamented:

I always told myself I have to work really hard to keep my son on the straight and narrow to alleviate him experiencing racial profiling and such. It seems like that doesn’t even matter anymore. Next week I will release my son into the world as he starts preschool and I can only Pray, Hope and have Faith that he won’t ever have the same fate as Mike Brown. #PrayForStl

Here she grieves the impossibility of her black son’s existence in America today. For her son, the first day of school inaugurates his movement into the public sphere, which will reduce him to an expendable criminal. Inculcating him into rigorously self-policing, his every habitus1 will somehow fail.

Mike Brown, those who came before him, Eric Garner, and too many others since, testify to Michel Foucault’s concept of power as relation. Specifically, Foucault articulates the operation of society supplying the demand for crime.2 That is, criminals are necessarily produced, captured, and executed in the name of defending society.3 One cannot exist without the other. Foucault explicitly links this procedure to racism.4 These current events expose American culture’s staging of black males as threatening and disposable subjects. However, the images described above illustrate not only the possibility of resistance, but also its necessity—despite being fraught with hegemony.

Using Foucault to advance activism might come as a surprise to readers who interpret Foucault’s political theory as underscoring the counter-productivity of political resistance. For this reason, Cynthia Nielsen argues in Foucault, Douglass, Fanon, and Scotus in Dialogue: On Social Construction and Freedom that “Foucault’s understanding of power relations assumes free subjects, and his notion of resistance is inextricably tied to his notion of power relations. Power and resistance, for Foucault, are correlative concepts. Thus, the ubiquity and inescapability of power relations goes hand in hand with the always present possibility for resistance.”5 Offering three male examples, Nielsen illustrates the potential for change despite subjectivity proving inextricable from social formation. And so, the relativity of subject formation alerts us to the malleability of the very forces that construct it. Oppression offers opportunity.

Far from biological determinism, Foucault’s theory of subject formation as a relation among people and society illuminates blackness coupled with masculinity on a trajectory of incarceration and/or death in America as profoundly unnatural. Thus, Nielsen avers that Foucault’s theory facilitates insurrectional knowledges and political resistance precisely because subjects and societies are constructed.

While some readers periodize Foucault’s writings relative to his activism, others detect a consistent commitment to dissention. Charles Taylor, Jürgen Habermas, Slavoj Žižek and others critique Foucault’s theory as incompatible with resistance. In opposition, Carl Death posits:

By adopting a practices and mentalities focus, rather than an actor-centric approach, and by seeking to destabilize the binaries of power and resistance, and government and freedom, that have structured much of political thought, an analytics of protest approach illuminates the mutually constitutive relationship between dominant power relations and counter-conducts, and shows how protests both disrupt and reinforce the status quo, at the same time.6

In accordance with scholars like Death, Nielsen enters these debates firmly defending the consistent potential for protest within Foucault’s work.

If Foucault’s praxis offers any indication, he regularly participated in protests. Pictured below, brow tense and megaphone in hand, Foucault demonstrates his discontent in the streets of Paris.


Over the course of his lifetime, the theorist protested prisons, executions, the Polish United Worker’s Party, and the suppression of protests, among other issues. Perhaps an argument can be made for the dissonance between his thought and actions. At the very least, however, his activism suggests that his theory was not intended to subdue citizens into placid compliance with the state.

That being said, one of Foucault’s profoundest insights lies in his unveiling that, due to relations of power, acts of resistance reinforce the very structures they protest because the two mutually constitute one another. Recognizing this dynamic suggests that the subject’s activity shapes and potentially redirects systems and powers, though never in an ahistorical or unproblematic manner. Foucault’s own shortcomings illustrate this, evidenced in the dissatisfactory account of colonialism and sex as trauma in his oeuvre. And yet, the value of Foucault’s insight allows his successors to use his theory against, or at least beyond, his writings.

In addition, like most people, Foucault occupied a complex position both in power and as marginalized. Privileged as a European, male scholar, Foucault could not account for how his prestige circumscribed his analysis. Feminists, queer theorists, and post-colonial theorists underscore such deficiencies. And yet, he was also discriminated against for his sexual practices. Thus he simultaneously inhabited an afflicted position in society.

As Nielsen observes, Fredrick Douglass also pivoted between oppression due to his blackness and oppressor as a male. Similarly, womanists charge white feminists and suffragists with mistreating women of color as they fought for the right to vote. In fact, Elizabeth Cady Stanton cooperated with Fredrick Douglass without regard for women of color. White women and black men in America display the complexity of subject relations due to various factors of privilege and dispossession associated with their bodies. Therefore, neither sex nor race fully defines one’s relationship to power, for one’s reception and options continually shift according to context. In accordance with Foucault’s theory, then, subjects are not classified according to a power hierarchy, but rather shift continually from within the throes of power relations—especially during acts of political resistance.

While I share Nielsen’s optimism concerning the compatibility of resistance with Foucauldian political theory (perhaps I take this even further by asserting resistance as necessary), I hesitate to embrace her account of anthropology. According to Nielsen, all subjects share reason and freedom as defining features of humanity. She writes:

[Foucault’s] genealogical and archaeological descriptions of power relations, freedom, resistance possibilities, reverse discourse, and active self-formation via various intentional and volitional “technologies of the self” presuppose a specific kind of subject possessing cognitive and volitional capacities. These capacities are not created by the subject herself; rather, employing Christian vocabulary, I shall argue that they are gifts given by the original author; they are essential aspects of human beings, of human persons created in the image and likeness of God and thus reflecting in a finite and analogous manner divine rationality and freedom.7

When reason characterizes humanity, how does one account for the historical rendering of those colonized, children, and people with cognitive challenges as subhuman or nonhuman? Applauding a person of color for disproving the irrationality of their people group preserves rather than questions an exploitative system. It comes as no surprise, then, that Fredrick Douglass and Frantz Fanon exhibit misogynistic attitudes in their writings. For their accomplishments testify to the corrupting forces lurking within society, which offer acknowledgment of some semblance of personhood in exchange for participation in oppression. Thus, these two black people become “men” and citizens in their very acts of debasing black women.

Elsewhere, Nielsen evokes limitation and contingency as unique features of anthropology.8 Borrowing from Bonhoeffer, I assert that this approach rightly locates humanity in “the middle” or the already-not-yet of redemption, where people are incapable of sinless action, and yet are not authorized to perpetuate exploitative powers. Rather, this framework suggests that people are called to further the kingdom of God in the present precisely because creatures cannot actualize utopias. Humanity, then, unwittingly abets evil, though never as authorized by Christ.9 Accepting that unlike God, people are not capable of sinless protest need not discourage one from participation. Interrogating and confessing one’s inability to extricate motives and actions from self-service contributes to resistance efforts.10 For illuminating these webs of power protests the fiction of disinterested, altruistic action, thereby expanding protest beyond something “out there” and embracing everyone’s culpability. This alternative anthropology objects to appeals to the imago Dei, which too often functions as a false universal, actually preserving whiteness and masculinity.11

Would not Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytic theory of subjectivity provide an alternative framework in which the “splitting” of the subject reveals the constructed and faulty nature of shoring up and protecting one’s ego?12 Though Nielsen asserts that “the ability to resist hegemonic discourses and to (re)construct one’s subjectivity requires an active subject,” is this drive to (re)construct one’s subjectivity a reiteration of the Enlightenment project? Certainly this suggestion goes beyond the scope of Nielsen’s work, though Frantz Fanon was a psychoanalyst. I pose it here as an invitation into further conversation concerning investments in “the self” arising out of modernity. Because Nielsen characterizes Christian “paradigms” as “an ongoing dying to self, an acknowledgement of one’s need for divine aid to renew the self,” Lacanian psychoanalysis might align with a new creation rather than attempt to recover a self that might never have existed in the first place.13

These are significant concerns because they relate directly to anthropology, which is to say that defining the subject shares a sordid history with delineating what it means to be human. Because the two have historically been collapsed with whiteness and masculinity, what might reorienting these towards blackness accomplish? While on the one hand it appears to validate the existence and value of people of color, as can be the case with some imago Dei arguments, it does so according to the same hegemonic terms. Therefore, drawing more bodies into a corrupt system of evaluation in no way disrupts the structure or technologies at work. On the contrary, it merely involves more participants within a nefarious schema. Therefore, offering subjectivity and humanity to more people insidiously preserves the problem. Appeals to natural law, ontology, or rights rhetoric only lubricates the machine professed to resist. And this is one of Foucault’s insights—an acumen that displays its profundity and dynamism in the turning of his analysis back upon the theorist.

In addition, I am curious about the possibilities of eschatological improvisation rather than telic freedom that Nielsen advises. The former more closely aligns with her jazz metaphor for theology.14 This forum uniquely allows for questions and response, therefore I ask: what Foucauldian concepts support Nielsen’s preservation of telos?

Returning to recent protests in America corroborates Foucault’s political theory concerning the complexity of resistance and power relations. Eternity E. Martis writes in the Huffington Post, “Dear Angry White People, The Ferguson Protest Was Not About You.” While the protest is about white people in the sense that it resists a system serving whites, Martis rightly narrates the complexity of ally participation. We might add to her insight by recognizing that people in positions of power struggle to involve themselves in activism without inadvertently reasserting their power and subjectivity. Usurping the quote “Hands up, don’t shoot,” for instance, white people reiterate the problematic iniquity among Americans rather than challenging it. For it is from a location of entitlement that one imagines all scripts as available and fitting for oneself.

Similarly, Kara Brown articulates, “The Problem With #CrimingWhileWhite.” This article illuminates the trouble with allies seeking to express support via sharing stories of white American law breaking without penalty. Brown explains, “I’m really happy for you, but Eric Garner is still dead,” which redirects the discourse to the profoundly dire stakes here. Provocatively, she asks, “Because really, what are black people supposed to do with these stories . . . they simply confirm what we already know: white privilege is f—— amazing.” Also, Brown notes the implicit expectation for gratitude that whites exhibit for merely recognizing advantages they enjoy in society. Again, such drawbacks support Foucault’s theory of resistance, but not necessarily to the effect that they prohibit white participation in protest. Rather, they illustrate how deep inequity permeates even modes of resistance and thus the pressing need for activism.

While Nielsen acknowledges the status of black bodies as socially dead in society, I desire further treatment of the gravity of this non/existence. As the first day of school images described above indicate, bodies determine the im/possibility of performing proper citizenship. Moreover, the consequences of failure prove severe—literal death. And not just any death, rather, recent events brazenly portray senseless shooting and choking of black men in America’s streets. What are the uniquely compounded qualities of death for bodies already rendered socially dead? In this context, does the opportunity for active subjectivity actually function as a burden due to its near impossibility? More pointedly, would not a Christian intervention ideally posit an option that cuts across the rules of this thrown game instead of instructing those disadvantaged in how to best play?

Therefore we are compelled to protest; and yet, to also interrogate how our resistance reasserts white supremacy, patriarchy, heteronormativity, etc. In other words, how does activism contribute to recapitulating our selves and others as docile bodies in service to corrupt systems? While Nielsen’s figures “—speaking from the margins and liminal spaces of modernity—expand, strengthen, and offer correctives to the emancipatory dimensions of Foucault’s project,” how might women, particularly women of color, contribute to these insights?15 Although Nielsen addresses this concern briefly in her chapter on Fredrick Douglass, it is also germane to Fanon, who infamously wrote, “. . . about the woman of color. I know nothing about her.”16

Allow me, now, to turn our attention to “the black woman” here. Deemed a repository for multiple forms of discrimination, black women contribute unique perspicacity concerning resistance.17 Consider, for example, Toni Morrison’s Beloved. In the novel, the main character Sethe commits infanticide rather than turning her children over to her slave master. In this instance, Sethe felt physical death posed a better alternative to the non-life of slavery. What does Sethe’s abject desperation and “freedom” of choice suggest? How is her action defiant yet also the fulfillment of prescribed death for black bodies in America?

Morrison’s chilling fiction effectively alerts readers to the cacophony of resistance. Protecting Sethe’s children from the horrors of slavery does not take the form of passive or effective protest. Rather, Morrison pens a sanguine event in which the maternal figure aims to give life via death. However, in the scenes that follow, Sethe finds herself haunted by her child’s spirit. The child’s blood cries out from the earth. Disquieted and pained, Sethe attempts to do penance by coddling Beloved’s spirit. Though, instead of critiquing Sethe for what some might consider an unnatural act, Morrison provokes readers to contemplate the desperation that prompted Sethe.

Among the children introduced above, it is the image of the young black girl whose haunting blood-red handprints and “don’t shoot” text impart context and meaning to that of the black boy and white girl preparing for their first day of school. Her black female body, typically rendered invisible in American society, prophesies against the militarization of the police. The black mother who set this child against her son does not particularize Mike Brown; instead she detects what his death portends for all citizens.18 Her subjectivity moves in relation to others. She does not position herself as an objective observer, hapless victim, or villainous perpetrator, but rather cries out in desperation from within the welter. In this way, she pulls the viewer into the horror of culpability, but not as an end; rather, she exhorts us to participate in her protest.

  1. Pierre Bourdieu, Pascalian Meditations, trans. Richard Nice (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997).

  2. Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the College De France 1978–1979, ed. Michel Senellart, trans. Graham Burchell (New York: Picador, 2004), 256.

  3. Michel Foucault, “Society Must Be Defended”: Lectures at the College de France 1975–1976, ed. Arnold I. Davidson, trans. David Macey (New York: Picador, 1997). Note that Foucault begins with the creation of criminality, not recidivism, as problematic. It is not, then, that people are trapped after committing crimes but that the prior adjudication of one as criminal is the issue at hand.

  4. Ann Laura Stoler, Race and the Education of Desire: Foucault’s History of Sexuality and the Colonial Order of Things (Durham: Duke University Press, 1995).

  5. Cynthia Nielsen, Foucault, Douglass, Fanon, and Scotus in Dialogue: On Social Construction and Freedom (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2013), xi.

  6. Carl Death, “Counter-conducts: A Foucauldian Analytics of Protest,” in Social Movement Studies 9.3 (2010) 235–51.

  7. Nielsen, 42.

  8. Ibid., 33.

  9. As Nielsen notes, “intentional actions are always subject to producing unintended consequences” (39).

  10. For further discussion on the role of self-interest as corrupting good works, see Martin Luther’s “On the Freedom of a Christian” (1520), ed. Harold Grimm, 327–78, in Career of the Reformer: I, trans. by W. A. Lambert and rev. by Harold J. Grimm, vol. 31 of Luther’s Works, American edition ed. by Helmut T. Lehman (Philadelphia: Concordia and Muhlenberg, 1957).

  11. For a brief introduction to this assertion, see “How to Uphold White Supremacy by Focusing on Diversity and Inclusion: Liberalism’s Inherent Racism,” Model View Culture, December 10, 2014. Also see critiques of “All lives matter” such as Michael P. Jeffries’s “Ferguson Must Force Us to Face Anti-blackness,” Boston Globe, November 28, 2014. In many ways, what I posit here aligns with Nielsen’s conclusion on faith, hope, and love (148).

  12. It certainly appears compatible with Nielsen’s subtitle, “A Decentered, Dethroned, but Still Alive and Kicking Subject” (18).

  13. Nielsen, 18.

  14. “Although I argue that a harmonization can be achieved, my symphonic variations remain open-ended and invite other composers to improvise and add their voices to the performance” Nielsen, xv.

  15. Ibid., ix.

  16. Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, trans. Charles Lam Markmann (New York: Grove, 1967) 179–80.

  17. Eboni Marshall Turman, Towards a Womanist Ethic of Incarnation: Black Bodies, the Black Church, and the Council of Chalcedon (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).

  18. Media reports of racially charged police brutality since this piece was written (eight months ago) further corroborate the systemic problem at hand.

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    Cynthia R. Nielsen


    A Response to Michelle Wolff

    I appreciate how Michelle Wolff interweaves current events with her scholarly discourse, connecting praxis and theory, protest and reflection. More specifically, she engages in parrhesiastic criticism of racialized discourses and practices by drawing attention to how the black bodies of Mike Brown and Eric Garner were constructed as dangerous criminals against whom (white) society must be defended. Wolff also provides an illuminating discussion of Foucault, noting that she resonates with much of what I argue regarding Foucauldian power relations and resistance possibilities. That is, for Foucault, power is not a static thing, but is a dynamic, inescapable set of agonistic relations that constitute society. A free subject is then one whose relationships of power keep open a field of possibilities for acting on one’s own actions as well as others. Power relations are contrasted with relations of (pure) violence in which one member or group is rendered so utterly passive that physical death is inevitable.1 That is, unlike genuine power relations where resistance possibilities of some sort remain open, relations of (pure) violence are characterized by forced passivity rending it impossible for the oppressed both (1) to resist and destabilize the other’s actions upon him/her and (2) to modify one’s own actions for one’s own purposes. What might a relation of pure violence look like? One example is a political prisoner bound in chains, tortured for a specified period, and left to starve to death. The prisoner’s resistance options are closed, shut down; he can do nothing to improve his situation. He can’t even commit suicide—should he so desire—in order to make a political or personal statement. Imminent death, the ultimate passivity, is inevitable.

    In short, relationships of (pure) violence make reciprocal constructive transformation impossible; they are destructively asymmetrical. For Foucault, asymmetrical power relations need not involve oppressive domination. They can, for example, be expressed positively in relationships such as a parent/child or professor/student relationship. However, such relations, like all power relations, are agonistic; yet they remain fluid and permit reciprocal action and open possibilities for change and growth. Consequently, Foucault’s notion of power is not confined to destructive power relations producing negative effects but also includes productive power relations producing positive effects. As Jon Simons puts it, “power and resistance are conditions of possibility for each other.”2 Consequently, resistance possibilities always exist in Foucauldian power relations. Acknowledging both as sites of possibility for personal and social change enables us to understand rightly Foucault’s famous statement, “Where there is power, there is resistance, and yet, or rather consequently, this resistance is never in a position of exteriority in relation to power.”3 To claim that there is no “outside” to power is in no way a call to passivity and resignation.

    Still one might wonder why the violent relationship between a master and a slave wouldn’t count as a relation of (pure) violence. The master/slave relationship is complex; it pushes the limit of power relations; it is a dominating power relation to be sure and involves violence of the worst kind; yet, because the slave is viewed as beneficial to the master, to kill him or her would be calculated as unprofitable. (This is not to deny that slaves were regularly raped and tortured to death, and driven to suicide and insanity; such were common happenings during the reign of chattel slavery). However, when physical death is the inevitable and impending goal, the power relation crosses over to a relation of pure violence and thus ceases to be a power relation.

    Here Frederick Douglass’s account helps to illuminate and advance Foucault’s claims. Douglass’s narrative demonstrates that even amidst forced existence in a racialized, unjust, and thoroughly oppressive society, he engaged in intentional resistance strategies. For example, against all odds he achieved literacy through strategically and creatively transforming his mundane tasks into beneficial educational sites. As his own account makes clear, his achievement of literacy was essential to both his personal liberation and his collaborative endeavors as an abolitionist. In short, because Douglass was able and chose to act within this admittedly constrained environment and thus lived an “ethic of permanent resistance” (Jon Simons’s term)—or as Wolff might puts it, a life of active protest—he not only demonstrated the falsity of his sociopolitical classification as an inanimate thing, but he likewise resisted the oppressive practices and discourses of the slave-holding system and constructively re-narrated his subjectivity.

    One of the key questions I address in my book (and continue to ask myself today) is: what is it about human beings that makes possible acts of resistance and active subject re-narration? Stated otherwise, what is it about what we are as human beings, human animals, that makes possible resistance in the form of discursive practices, subject re-narration, and imagining and instituting alternative social realities? Furthermore, how do we explain why human animals in various cultures over the course of history ultimately resist oppressive and dehumanizing practices? Unlike Foucault, I’m not convinced that we can sidestep talk about human ontology in our interrogations and ethical evaluations of oppressive systems, sociopolitical practices, and violent actions against fellow human beings. When I turn to human ontology, Wolff finds my account problematic or at least potentially problematic. That is, Wolff is concerned that my positing rational (and more broadly, cognitive) and volitional capacities as essential human characteristics might result in exclusion and serve as yet another form of oppression. For Foucault, such danger is always possible when new programs or systems are instituted. As he states in an interview with Rux Martin in 1982, when asked about his role in anticipating a future freedom: “We know very well that, even with the best intentions, those programs become a tool, an instrument of oppression. Rousseau, a lover of freedom, was used in the French Revolution to build up a model of social oppression. Marx would be horrified by Stalinism and Leninism.” Yet, he goes on to say that his “role,” if that is the appropriate word, “is to show people that they are much freer than they feel, that people accept as truth, as evidence, some themes which have been built up at a certain moment during history, and that this so-called evidence can be criticized and destroyed. To change something in the minds of people—that’s the role of an intellectual.” So perhaps I am in this instance playing the role of the intellectual and calling for a re-interrogation of our thinking on human ontology.4

    In addition to my claims about non-constructed human capacities, I also argue repeatedly that Foucault’s own account of resistance strategies and self-making presuppose such capacities. After all an “ethic of permanent resistance” involves critical analysis of limits, social norms, discourses and practices, and ways of being and organizing society that have been proclaimed “natural” but are in fact fictive and even harmful constructions. Such critical analysis requires thought, which in terms requires the use of our cognitive faculties. I certainly agree with Wolff that discourses of reason have been employed and deployed for oppressive purposes. However, the misuse and false conceptions of reason and various rationalities do not convince me to abandon the view that our cognitive abilities are crucial features of what it is to be human; yet, I don’t claim that such capacities are exhaustive of what it means to be human—this aspect of my argument is underdeveloped, and I appreciate Wolff foregrounding it. Another important point that was at best implicit and should be made explicit is that humans are essentially dependent and interdependent animals.5 That is, we are born into and live our lives in multiple relational communities. Thus, as infants we depend upon our parents or other caregivers to nurture and educate us. If we live to be elderly persons, we also depend on the wisdom and care that others provide. This kind of care and education presupposes at least some healthy interaction with others who exercised their cognitive and volitional capacities for our good. Even as adults we depend in countless ways on the knowledge and instruction of others. Like power, reason, too, is productive, creative, and, while always dangerous, can be used for emancipatory purposes. My current thinking on human ontology is still very much “in flux”; however, for me, it is a crucial topic that must be addressed because black lives should never be treated as expendable; black lives matter.

    1. See, for example, Foucault’s discussion of relations of violence and power relations in his essay “The Subject and Power,” Critical Inquiry 8 (1982) 777–95, esp. 789.

    2. Jon Simons, Foucault and the Political (New York: Routledge, 1995), 81.

    3. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol. 1, An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage, 1990), 95.

    4. Michel Foucault, “Truth, Power, Self: An Interview,” in Technologies of the Self: A Seminar with Michel Foucault, ed. Luther H. Martin, Hugh Gutman, and Patrick H. Hutton (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988), 9–15, here 10.

    5. I do repeatedly argue for a socially conditioned, de-centered subject (and decidedly not a “sovereign” subject). See, for example, chapter 2, where I discuss not only Foucault’s notion of a de-centered subject, but I also propose my own notion of the de-centered, improvising subject in conversation with feminist philosopher Seyla Benhabib’s “situated subject.” See esp., FFDS, 22–24.



Frederick Douglass and the Dialectic of Knowledge

Cynthia Nielsen’s chapter on Frederick Douglass in Foucault, Douglass, Fanon, and Scotus in Dialogue: On Social Construction and Freedom covers significant ground and represents an insightful scholarly advance on the philosophical and theological dimensions of Douglass’s thought. Particularly significant are Nielsen’s insights on the concreteness of Douglass’s lived experience in contrast to the abstractions of the Hegelian master/slave dialectic. Nielsen emphasizes this point when she writes that there are “problems both with the abstract, ahistorical nature of Hegel’s account and the necessity he posits at each stage of his system,” and that “given the dialectical reversals inherent in his [Hegel’s] system as a whole, his account suggests that over time slavery will simply eradicate itself. Douglass, however, calls this claim into question. Having lived most of his life in a full-blown racialized society . . . Douglass became convinced of the need for active resistance.”1 As is the problem with many white philosophers, much of their work is removed from human experience.2 And although Hegel’s critique of Kant’s abstraction is well known,3 Nielsen deftly points to the deficiency in Hegel’s abstract thinking as it relates to the experience of Douglass’s self-generated attempts at manumission from what he called the “peculiar institution” of American chattel slavery. Moreover, Nielsen succeeds in showing both a convergence with Foucault as it relates to the notions of the panoptic gaze and divergence from Foucault concerning Douglass’s transcultural moral commitments.4

In this essay, I focus on the dialectical role of knowledge in discursive practices and in Douglass’s acts of resistance. Specifically, I want to show how the despair that follows Douglass’s literacy—his attainment of “knowledge”—is not only akin to the knowledge that “Adam and Eve gained through their transgressive act”5 and is thus an indirect communication-generated, Kierkegaardian moment of despair, but also that this knowledge becomes a part of Douglass’s resistance to an epistemic regime of oppression that, I will argue, comes from a rational quest for knowledge that is, in many ways, uniquely philosophical. In both instances, I want to show that knowledge is at once creative and destructive.

Although Nielsen correctly diagnoses Douglass’s existential despair as an encounter with a troubling species of knowledge as an awareness of the profound hardships of life as a slave, there is more depth to the oppressive side of knowledge that one finds within the epistemic regime of whiteness in which Douglass is situated as a piece of chattel. Knowledge is thus at once both liberating and despair-producing for Douglass on the back end, while it is oppressive and racist toward Douglass and all American slaves—and many free blacks—on the front end. Indeed, it is the latter form of knowledge that produces the former type of knowledge in Douglass. It is this sort of knowledge that is the other half of the epistemic dialectic that I believe can take Nielsen’s already provocative, insightful account of Douglass’s subjectivity to a deeper level, for it not only better helps us understand Douglass’s life as a life of resistance to oppression, but it also helps us to understand the nature and origin of the racist, and hypocritically “Christian” regime of whiteness that produced the oppression in the first instance. With a deeper understanding of this so-called Christian regime of whiteness, its idolatrous pitfalls can perhaps be avoided and its devastating effects alleviated.

Douglass, Anxiety, and Despair

The first half of knowledge’s creative/destructive dialectic is Douglass’s existential moment of despair, resulting from a Kierkegaardian moment of indirect communication, double reflection and subjective appropriation. In his 1845 narrative, he gives us an account of the impression that the abolitionist tract The Columbian Orator had upon him. It is in this publication that Douglass finds a fictional dialogue between a master and a slave. Through his reading of this dialogue, Douglass becomes aware of “the power of truth over the conscience of even a slaveholder.”6 But Douglass quickly points out that although reading the dialogue enabled him “to utter” his “thoughts and to meet the arguments brought forward to sustain slavery” and thus “relieved” him “of one difficulty, they brought another even more painful than the one of which I was relieved.”7 He continues on to point out that “I would at times feel that learning to read had been a curse rather than a blessing. It had given me a view of my wretched condition without the remedy.”8 Here, Douglass experiences despair because of an indirect communication, for the dialogue between the master and the slave was a fictional dialogue that effectively removed Douglass’s deception that all he could ever be was a piece of chattel. In contrast, by reading The Columbian Orator, Douglass was able to see himself as the articulate and persuasive slave. He writes that reading The Columbian Orator “enabled me to utter my thoughts and to meet the arguments brought forward to sustain slavery.”9 So it is that, in a Kierkegaardian sense, Douglass engaged in double reflection and subjective appropriation, committing himself to moral suasion as the principal means to abolition. For Kierkegaard, despair is the existential condition where one wants to be rid of a self that is fundamentally at odds with itself. The self is, all at once, temporal and eternal, finite and infinite, and determined and free.10 It is the realization that he is free that is so difficult for Douglass, for as a slave, his being was already determined. To put it in Sartrean existentialist terms, as a slave, Douglass had an essence that preceded his existence.11 Being a slave was thus a fate to be accepted. But the emergence of Douglass’s literacy brought with it the realization that being a slave was, in reality, not a fate to be accepted with resignation, but rather was a condition to be resisted with passion. And this realization was a harsh one for Douglass, as he wished himself to be a slave: “In moments of agony, I envied my fellow-slaves for their stupidity. I have often wished myself a beast. I preferred the condition of the meanest reptile to my own. Anything, no matter what, to get rid of thinking.”12 Nielsen is right that Douglass’ newly found literacy is a “transgressive act” akin to Adam and Eve’s, but it is also significantly different, for whereas Adam and Eve sought knowledge of good and evil as an end, Douglass sought knowledge as a means to the greater end of physical, and moral freedom. Recall that Adam and Eve sought a knowledge of good and evil. But good and evil are things that are done, not things that are merely known. In seeking knowledge for the sake of knowledge, an ethical directive not to do so was disregarded, and Adam and Eve had fallen victim to the human tendency for epistemic addiction: they sought knowledge to the exclusion of ethics.13 Such is the nature of Douglass’s world; he is fixed as chattel within an oppressive epistemic regime that I describe below.

Knowledge and Oppression

Douglass—and every other American slave—existed within a theologically and politically justified epistemological framework of oppression. The Hamitic curse, the argument for Negro baptism, and the laws of the slave trade are all grounded in an onto-theological “Christian” conception of the world where black bodies become the victims of Aristotelian-infused conceptions of natural law such that they are slaves “by nature.” It is this antecedent epistemic framework that Nielsen does not discuss, but which nevertheless first defines Douglass as a “nigger,” and a slave. The “god” that is at the core of this oppressive epistemic framework is an idol of human reason. Akin to the Aristotelian first cause, which was borne of a desire to eliminate infinite regress, this god becomes a reflection of the white community that produced it. So it is that even as Aristotle could construct a universe in which god is the first cause of motion, that same god—an imago hominis of Greek thought—is a cosmic representation of pure actuality and presides over a world in which anyone who is born as non-Greek is a slave.14 Scholasticism then absorbs Aristotelian theology into Christianity, making rational arguments for God’s existence a normative endeavor that, despite modern critiques, retained enormous influence throughout the enlightenment, and became absorbed into Christian theology in such a way that Christianity and slaveholding could actually be reconciled to one another!

Consider Reverend Godwin’s argument for Negro baptism. It held that black slaves could be baptized because while their bodies belonged to their slave masters, their souls belonged to God. Beneath this theological sophistry is a pernicious form of Cartesian dualism that effectively splits black identity in half and that justifies slavery throughout life and enables freedom only in death; conveniently at a time when the black slave is of no use to the white slave owner. Douglass himself recognized the profound moral shortcomings of this theological sophistication when he referred to the dialectical subtlety of Reverend Godwin as “too metaphysical.”15 Here we see an onto-theological justification for a slave system disguised as sound theology, but one that is actually a god borne of epistemic addiction. This god represents a reversal of the Judeo-Christian notion that God creates human beings in his image to serve Him, for this “god” is created in the image of humans, to serve corrupt human interests. It is against this onto-theological backdrop that Douglass’s dehumanization is politically and socially justified. This sort of onto-theological knowledge is as creative and as destructive as Douglass’s emergent literacy: it creates a world of oppression, and it destroys not only black and white humanity, but it also destroys Christianity as well, leading Douglass to call slaveholding Christianity “the boldest of all frauds and the grossest of all libels.”16


Nielsen gifts Douglass scholarship with an insightful study of Douglass’s resistance to oppression and the formation of his subjectivity in resistance to that oppression. My aim here was to engage her work through a discussion of not only how knowledge generates Douglass’s existential despair, but also how knowledge also leads to the acts of resistance in the first place. Knowledge is thus dialectical: for both Douglass and for the slave system it was creative and destructive. For the slave system, onto-theological justifications for slavery created an oppressive system and destroyed both white and black humanity, and for Douglass, knowledge helped to destroy that system, and replace it with creative possibilities borne of Douglass’s acts of resistance.

  1. See Cynthia R. Nielsen, Foucault, Douglass, Fanon, and Scotus in Dialogue: On Social Construction and Freedom (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 56.

  2. For an excellent discussion and critique of abstraction in the social and political context, see Charles Mills, “Rawls on Race / Race in Rawls,” Southern Journal of Philosophy 47 (2009) 161–84.

  3. See Hegel’s essay Faith and Knowledge.

  4. Nielsen, 47–48, and 62–63.

  5. Nielsen, 60.

  6. Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave: Written by Himself (New York: Penguin, 1997), 53.

  7. Ibid.

  8. Ibid.

  9. Ibid., 53

  10. Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death, trans. Howard V. and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), 13.

  11. George Yancy, Black Bodies White Gazes: The Continuing Significance of Race (Lanham, MD: Rowman Littlefield, 2008), 165.

  12. Douglass, 53.

  13. I have written of epistemic addiction elsewhere. See “Epistemic Addiction: Reading ‘Sonny’s Blues’ with Levinas, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche,” Journal of Speculative Philosophy 26.3 (2012) 554–71.

  14. See Aristotle, Politics, 1252b5–9, 1255a28–b2, 1285a9–21.

  15. Douglass, “Why Is the Negro Lynched?,” in Frederick Douglass: Selected Speeches and Writings, ed. Philip S. Foner, (Chicago: Lawrence Hill, 1999), 774.

  16. Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, 118.

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    Cynthia R. Nielsen


    A Response to Timothy Golden

    I am both familiar with and highly respect Tim Golden’s work on Frederick Douglass and am very thankful for his willingness to respond and engage my chapter on Douglass. I especially like the way that Golden brings Kierkegaard into conversation with Douglass in order to bring out the polyphonic, dialectical dimensions of Douglass’s understanding of knowledge as manifest “within the regime of whiteness.” In particular, I found Golden’s discussion of Kierkegaard’s notions of despair, indirect discourse, and subjective appropriation in relation to Douglass’s reading of the Columbian Orator and the liberating/constraining dialectic it produced to be an extremely fecund way to unearth the intricacies of Douglass’s account of the dialectical dimensions of knowledge.

    Golden also highlights what he calls the “theologically and politically justified epistemic framework of oppression” into which Douglass and every other American slave were, as Heidegger might put it, “thrown.” Here blackness is negatively portrayed not only in philosophical discourses but also in Christian (or better [mal]formed “Christian”) discourses. Focusing on the latter—i.e., racialized “Christian” discourses—Golden draws attention to anti-Christian dualistic notions inherited via ancient Greek and modern philosophical sources. Here the adoption of dualism is anything but an abstract, academic activity. As Golden explains, white oppressors employ a kind of Cartesian body/soul dualism to justify the enslavement of black bodies in this world while pointing to a other-world freedom for the soul. Here too we have a dialectic of “creative/destructive knowledge,” which both inaugurates and maintains, as Golden aptly observes, a “world of oppression” destroying both “black and white humanity” and discrediting Christianity.

    At this point, I want to develop Golden’s insight regarding Douglass’s seeing himself otherwise via his reading of the Columbian Orator. This is an excellent example of art’s power—here in the form of literature of sorts—to create new worlds and new ways of seeing ourselves. Romare Bearden, one of America’s finest artists, created works birthed and nurtured in struggle. Like Douglass, Bearden too was engaged in an ongoing struggle not only for recognition and respect, but also a struggle to break the bonds of racialized stereotypes. Bearden’s complex understanding of the individual and the community and the artist and the art historical tradition plays an important role in the development of his own artistic style and social identity as well as his re-imaging of black life in America.

    As I discuss in my book, Douglass engages in his own variant of (anachronistically speaking) Foucaultian reverse discourse, wherein he utilizes the common metaphors and tropes of the dominant discourses in order to subvert them and re-form the (mal)formed images of blackness. Similarly, Bearden, as a subjugated artist, engaged the dominant tradition through serious examination of its styles, forms, techniques, and exemplary figures. As Bearden himself states in his writings and letters, he greatly benefited from studying the techniques and works of artists such as Picasso, De Hooch, Rembrandt, Matisse, and others, his goal was never mere imitation or assimilation; rather, he sought to affirm the value and beauty of black difference. His works not only proclaim the significance of black difference, but they also challenge and seek to expand and even overturn both society’s and the (in this case, art) tradition’s accepted discourses, values, and practices.

    In Bearden’s artworks we encounter European stylistic influences infused with symbols, rituals, and mythic elements associated with African American life in both its Southern and Northern expressions. The resulting style is clearly modern but manifests a distinctively black-modern identity. For example, in his 1967 painting, Three Folk Musicians, Beardon combines cubist formal elements with his own collage technique. The content of the painting focuses on three African American folk musicians adorned in brightly colored clothing—clothing that unites both black rural and urban life as symbolized by the figures donning both overalls and berets. The musician on the left and the one in the center are pictured with guitars, and the musician on the right—the one wearing overalls—is holding a banjo, an instrument believed to have been introduced to America via the slave trade. Many of the musicians’ facial features and parts of their hands have been cut out and reconfigured from various previously existing pictures culled from popular magazines and other sources. Not only does Bearden fuse together different aspects of black life and history, but, like Douglass, he also presents a complex view of social construction. That is, our individual lives are both constituted by others—depicted visually in the artwork through the collage assemblage of various body parts of others forming the bodies of each individual musician—and (re)formed through the artist’s creative fashioning of him- or herself in relation to others. In his use of symbols of African American life and history—the overalls signifying life in the rural South, the beret signifying urban life in the North (the beret was a popular fashion trend during the Harlem Renaissance), the banjo, and the emphasis on creative activity via music-making—Bearden subverted white discourses demeaning black life and culture and presented black difference as vibrant, creative, complex, and worthy of respect. By bringing fragments together to form a unified work, Bearden shows art’s power to create both a self and a world and to bring some sense of wholeness to fragmentation—even if the wholeness is temporary and forever open to alteration.



Other(wise) Than Self-Determination

Fanon, Nielsen, and the Politics of Human Freedom

In Foucault, Douglass, Fanon, and Scotus in Dialogue: On Social Construction and Freedom, Cynthia Nielsen moves deftly and patiently between her multiple conversation partners, producing a creative arrangement in which the resonances and dissonances converge in a symphonic expression of a politics founded on the rationality and freedom of all human beings.1 It’s a wonderful text and Nielsen should be commended both for the breadth of the conversation and for unfolding this theme in a cohesive and powerful way.

The subtitle of Nielsen’s book, “On Social Construction and Freedom,” describes her overriding concern to revisit the question of free will and determinism in light of more recent claims that “the subject” is a product of particular institutional apparatuses and their accompanying discourses. A socially constructed subject would be one wholly externally determined and, therefore, it seems incapable of freedom or resistance. Nielsen seeks to show how a politically infused humanism—a politics grounded in the innate and universal dignity of all human beings as free, rational agents—is both philosophically and politically necessary to account for and ethically defend resistance to oppressive social structures like slavery and colonialism.

The following engagement focuses on the fourth chapter, which bears the longest title of all the chapters in the book: “Fanon on Decolonizing Colonized Subjectivities and the Quest for an Historically Attuned Symphonic Humanism.” Instead of summarizing how Nielsen’s chapter approaches and handles the monumental task signified by its title, I want focus on one moment within it: her discussion of Frantz Fanon, Jean-Paul Sartre, and the dialectical negation of black humanism (Négritude). Besides providing a way to summarize Nielsen’s approach, this moment brings to light a tension or contradiction within Fanon’s own account: the universal humanism he articulates is one he is also struggling in some ways to escape. I will end by suggesting that Nielsen’s notion of freedom as an ability to act “otherwise” can help us move beyond the impasse Fanon faces by placing the excess that is human freedom back in the body.

Fanon, Sartre, and the Dialectics of (Black) Humanism

Fanon’s famous chapter on “The Lived Experience of the Black Man” narrates the lived experience of a human subject in a world that renders him an object. Fanon describes an extreme situation of external determination and social construction, one at, it would seem, the limits of human freedom: instead of the body being developed as an expression of the human will in the world, the black body is over-determined externally, rendered an object under the white gaze such that the black man, upon entrance into white society, is never situated in a body that is “his” but rather one that is always-already constructed against and imposed upon him.2

Fanon, in Nielsen’s reading, ultimately resists such external determination through the politics of Négritude. Not only does Fanon’s endorsement of Négritude signify his “desire to recover African values and to share those values with the world” (90); it also indexes his freedom, for Fanon could and did reject the imposition of white social constructions of blackness by constructing his own. On Jean-Paul Sartre’s interpretation, however, this freedom found in Négritude is only a weak stage in a dialectical progression. Négritude is a reactive and passing historical moment: once its negative work has been accomplished (negating European white supremacy), it dissolves itself for the sake of the truly global humanism of the raceless proletariat.

Nielsen argues that Fanon reluctantly accepts Sartre’s dialectical account. Négritude has, therefore, a kind of “therapeutic function” in which one strategically constructs an ideal notion of black identity to negate white supremacy, although one will “eventually move to an increasingly more complex view of its identity as social construction” (92). Through this “strategic essentialism,” Fanon refuses to accept a social construction—European colonialism—as ultimate and necessary. This reworking of externally enforced social constructions indicates the ways in which Fanon’s politics requires an account of universal human freedom while still being attuned to the needs and complexities of particular historical situations.

For Fanon—and Nielsen does not emphasize this point strongly enough, I think—Sartre’s dialectical interpretation repeats the operative gesture of white supremacy: “between the white man and me there is irremediably a relationship of transcendence.”3 Earlier in the chapter, Fanon narrates the impossible relation between the black subject and its white Other: “I approached the Other . . . and the Other, evanescent, hostile but not opaque, transparent and absent, vanished.”4 As Fanon sought recognition of his self-assertive creativity—expressed in Négritude—Sartre responded by inscribing this self-asserting black freedom within a broader historical development, thereby vanishing himself from the relation and positioning black self-consciousness as something historically determined.5 Sartre, like all the other white interlocutors in the chapter, retains his transcendence to and determination of the field of the properly human, a position that is less interested in affirming or denying black self-consciousness (or humanity) and more focused on sustaining its own sense of self-determination (by vanishing from relation). Sartre, in this instance, remains unaffected by incorporating Négritude as a passing moment within his own personal as well as the global production of a post-racial, anti-capitalist humanism (a Hegelian moment that provides the ideal coincidence of self-production and external determination).6

This construction of white un-affectability (or the ideal of freedom from external determination or constraint) always carries with it, however, the production of human life given over to or dominated by affectability. As Nielsen notes, the subject is always “doubly constructed,” both shaped by external factors and shaping itself (42, 96). However, within the politics of the human, the impetus to secure self-determination from external constraints leads to a split between the exemplary performance of human self-construction (the transcendence of the white man) and those contained within but excised from this human ideal (those failed, externally determined subjects, the damned).7 In this scenario, recognition of the capacity for human self-determination can be one of the strategies whereby the politics of white transcendence and its damnation of black life continue.8 As Nielsen notes (28), even the dehumanizing structures of slavery presupposed a tacit recognition of the humanity of the enslaved, and the end of slavery, which removed the ambivalence of this recognition, failed to undermine the relation of transcendence: “the upheaval reached the black man from the outside.”9

Fanon has, as it were, two ways of envisioning the resuscitation of humanism as an exit from this situation of external determination or damnation and Nielsen discusses them in tandem (95). In Black Skin, White Masks, human self-determination is maintained by preserving the human from any and all external determination: “the density of History determines none of my acts. I am my own foundation.”10 In The Wretched of the Earth, instead of denying the impact of power and violence, violence is embraced and developed through a dialectical progression of liberation.11 Here, activity is not the externalization of an always undetermined, transcendent will; rather the will and consciousness are products of labor and praxis, in this case, the labor of anti-colonial violence. The danger in both movements is that, as Françoise Vergès argues, vulnerability, passivity, and penetrability—affectability, in short—become signs of an improper placement within the community of (self-productive) man and must be “disavowed” for the sake of properly belonging to the human community.

Otherwise Freedom

Nielsen opens a way to move through this impasse faced by Fanon with her discussion of the metaphysics of freedom (though it is unclear to me whether Nielsen herself would advocate taking this path!). If the free will, as free, always retains the possibility of doing otherwise even while engaged in an act (13, 108), then human freedom need not be seen in a negative relationship to affectability: freedom is the otherwise, the excess, within any activity or situation.12 This excess need not be interiorized in and as the self-possessed and self-determining will of the subject opposed to externality and affectability. Rather, it might be located through Fanon’s closing words in this text, the final “prayer” addressed to his body: “O my body, always make me one who questions.”13

The questioning Fanon invokes indexes the excess, the otherwise within any situation, and this excess is generated by and through the body. The body itself, then, with its vulnerability and affectability is not a threatening limit to human freedom but its source, opening up—or so he prays!—this otherwise or excess within any and every activity. And it is precisely this excess that allows Fanon to chart, in his own way, the problems of a decolonial politics of human recognition while still not abandoning a politics of freedom: for his black body rendered object may still be reconstructed with “the intuitive lianas of [his] hands.” Which is to say, what Fanon knows and what Sartre forgets is not just that “the black man suffers in his body quite differently from the white man”;14 what Fanon knows is also what his black body may give him, other ways of being, or, freedom as an otherwise to (white masculine self-possessed) being, which would be, for Fanon, a freedom truly worthy of all our (human) bodies.15

  1. Cynthia R. Nielsen, Foucault, Douglass, Fanon, and Scotus in Dialogue: On Social Construction and Freedom (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text.

  2. I use the gendered pronoun to mark both Fanon’s gendered account of the black body and the problematic I find in the way gender continues to operate within a discussion of the human as self-determining as opposed to externally determined.

  3. Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, trans. Richard Philcox, rev. ed. (New York: Grove, 2008), 117.

  4. Ibid., 92, translation modified.

  5. As Fanon says later, in describing the lack of a kind of Hegelian struggle for recognition: “But usually there is nothing, nothing but indifference or paternalistic curiosity.” Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, 196.

  6. On the issues of race, self-determination, external determination, and Hegel, see the brilliant study by Denise Ferreira da Silva, Toward a Global Idea of Race (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007).

  7. I invoke the language of “the damned” both as it surfaces at the very end of Fanon’s discussion of Sartre and is centered in Fanon’s book The Wretched [or Damned] of the Earth, in which Fanon analyzes the colonial (and postcolonial Euro-American regime of global capitalism) distributions of fragility, stasis, condemnation, and death. Giorgio Agamben has developed the ways in which the exemplar and the exception organize and define the members of a set in Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998).

  8. David Brooks, for instance, grants poor black communities more self-determining power than their liberal white defenders usually do, who typically emphasize the structural production of their problems and responses. Brooks emphasizes their self-determination, however, to blame them for their situation. See Brooks’ article in response to the unrest in Baltimore, “The Nature of Poverty,” New York Times, May 1, 2015, http:/C:/dev/home/

  9. Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, 196.

  10. Ibid., 205.

  11. Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Richard Philcox (New York: Grove, 2004).

  12. Ashon Crawley has recently articulated the complex interplay of the human, freedom, and the “otherwise” in his reflections on Alexander G. Weheliye’s book, Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human. See his review essay, “Stayed | Freedom | Hallelujah,” Los Angeles Review of Books, May 10, 2015,

  13. Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, 206. The translation is altered here to remove the gendered language as I am attempting to draw out how this aspect of Fanon’s work can open up paths that do not repeat the “disavowal” of affectability.

  14. This quote and the one in the sentence above both come from Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, 117.

  15. I have enclosed the human in parentheses to mark Fanon’s “Lived Experience of the Black Man” as, to use Fred Moten’s phrasing, “the troubling of and the capacity for the rehabilitation of the human.” See Fred Moten, “The Case of Blackness,” Criticism 50.2 (2008) 211.

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    Cynthia R. Nielsen


    A Response to Timothy McGee

    Tim McGee’s thought-provocating essay focuses on the fourth chapter of my book, a chapter devoted to Franz Fanon. More specifically, McGee turns his attention to my analysis of Fanon, Sartre, and what he calls the “dialectics of (black) humanism.” McGee’s astute attunement to the importance of black humanism is crucial, as many if not most postmodern and poststructuralist critiques of humanism fail to engage the black radical tradition. I couldn’t agree more and try to bring out that same point in my chapter. Thus, on the one hand, I argue that Fanon’s humanism must not be confused with or equated to its Eurocentric variations. On the other, Fanon, by his own admission, is influenced by and draws upon (although not uncritically) European thinkers (such as Sartre, Hegel, Merleau-Ponty, Lacan) and traditions (Marxism). Fanon’s dialectical relationship to Europe and the European intellectual tradition shares certain similarities with Césaire’s relationship to the French literary tradition. As Sartre explains in “Orphée Noir,” the Négritude poets “answer the colonist’s ruse by a similar but reverse ruse: because the oppressor is present even in the language they speak, they speak that language in order to destroy it [pour la détruire]. The contemporary European poet attempts to dehumanize words in order to return them to nature; the black herald intends to de-Frenchify [défranciser] them; he will crush them, he will break their customary associations, he will join them violently.”1 Like Césaire, Fanon was shaped by the European intellectual tradition, and yet he deconstructed the tradition while simultaneously reharmonizing and creatively applying those aspects of European thought that he found true and worth retaining.

    In the conclusion to the Wretched of the Earth, we feel the tension, frustration, nausea, and searing critique that Fanon levels against Europe. He describes Europe as “murderously carnivorous” and having “lost control and reason.”2 He goes on to say:

    When I look for [the hu]man in European lifestyles and technology, I see a constant denial of [the hu]man, an avalanche of murders. [. . .] Let us decide not to imitate Europe and let us tense our muscles and our brains in a new direction. Let us endeavor to invent a [hu]man in full, something which Europe has been incapable of achieving.3

    A few paragraphs later, Fanon’s ambivalence toward Europe manifests. The following passage, although lengthy, is worth citing in full.

    All the elements for a solution to the major problems of humanity existed at one time or another in European thought. But the Europeans did not act on the mission that was designated them and which consisted in virulently pondering these elements, modifying their configuration, their being, of changing them, and finally taking the problem of [the hu]man to an infinitely higher plane. Today we are witnessing a stasis of Europe. Comrades, let us flee this stagnation where dialectics has gradually turned into a logic of the status quo. Let us reexamine the question of [the hu]man. Let us reexamine the question of cerebral reality, the brain mass of humanity in its entirety whose affinities must be increased, whose connections must be diversified and whose communications must be humanized again.4

    Here we see Fanon in biting irony and rhetorical flare acknowledge Europe’s contributions to human history and thought (and other passages could be cited) and yet he also draws attention to Europe’s failure, exclusionary practices, narcissism, and “stagnation.” (Fanon’s reference to dialectics may be a critical “jab” at both Hegel and Sartre.) All of this is to say—and one could point to similar tensions in Black Skin, White Masks—that Fanon’s relationship to Europe and its humanistic discourse(s) is extremely complex. However, one thing is certain: Fanon’s (new) humanism is neither naïve nor unaware of the violence that has occurred under the banner of (Eurocentric) humanism(s).

    As to my reading of Fanon’s equally complex relation to Sartre, I would like to offer a few clarifications. McGee seems to interpret my account of Fanon’s strategic use of essentialized narratives (i.e., certain inflections of Négritude) as an indication of Fanon’s reluctant acceptance of Sartre’s account in its entirety. This, however, is not the case. My position is not that Fanon’s final view is to promote a “global humanism of the raceless proletariat.” Quite the contrary, I argue (as detailed in the preceding paragraphs) that Fanon develops a highly sophisticated humanism that avoids the pitfalls of Eurocentric humanism(s) by allowing difference to stand amid ongoing constructions of the human as a socially shaped, resistance capable, discourse-producing-being open to multiple possibilities. Moreover, Fanon’s appropriation of any essentialized aspects of Negritude discourses as a strategic move highlights his acute awareness of “the reality of black identity as a social reality constructed for specific purposes by black subjects under particular historical constraints and contexts. The first-stage of the strategy demands a response, which qua first in the long process of identity deconstruction and reconstruction must stand in the starkest terms possible; thus, Fanon accepts a variation of the Hegelian-Sartrean dialectic—Négritude as a dialectical opposite to its thesis, white supremacy.”5 Fanon’s dialectic, thus, demonstrates a clear historical attunement and this-world orientation, as it recognizes not only the differences between black and white embodiment, but also the different “worlds” in which they dwell and the various stages in which collective identity re-narration and decolonization will occur. Recognizing that these stages will look different as one moves from the colonial to the postcolonial world (and beyond), Fanon understands that this first-stage binary construction qua essentialist discourse must be reconfigured to address adequately the varied and ever-changing socio-historical contexts. As strategic essentialism’s therapeutic function has its effect, the group will eventually move to an increasingly more complex view of its identity as a social construction, which by its nature is something more than a binary opposite reactionary discourse. “This historical movement allows the political, philosophical, and cultural insights gained over time—whether through the Négritude writers or from other quarters, including those Europeans with whom the group critically engaged—to be taken up and reharmonized to meet the group’s present needs at this later stage of development.”6 Consequently, I argue against David Scott’s charge that Fanon endorses a naïve “unreflective” notion of “an essential native subject.”7 Lastly, not only does Fanon censure Sartre’s view of Négritude for its failure to acknowledge the difference between the comportment and pain of black bodies in a white world, but he also—and I highlight this point in footnote 100—clearly has Sartre in view with the following sardonic remarks: “I wanted to be typically black—that was out of the question. I wanted to be white—that was a joke. And when I tried to claim my negritude intellectually as a concept, they snatched it away from me. [. . .] We had appealed to a friend of the colored peoples, and this friend had found nothing better to do than demonstrate the relativity of their action.”8

    Before closing, I want to take up and attempt a brief improvisation on a “riff” that McGee sounds in the last part of his essay, viz. his discussion of Fanon, embodiment, freedom and excess—a riff that I think McGee should develop even further given his research interests. McGee quotes Fanon’s closing words in Black Skin, White Masks, which might be taken as a prayer of sorts: “O my body, always make me one who questions.”9 Here Fanon prays that his body might be the site of an ongoing “event” occasioning self and world questioning. Like a work of art, Fanon’s body in all its alterity, materiality, risk, affectability, vulnerability, beauty is open to multiple enactments, multiple performances and interpretations over time—both Fanon’s interpretations and those of others, as this is part of the risk of our existence. Yet, the indeterminability or mystery or excess of our embodied-being-in-the-world as volitional improvisers need not be conquered, (conceptually or otherwise) captured, or annulled. In fact, to do so is to un-occasion the “event” of our becoming otherwise. Moreover, this questioning occasioned by the body’s art and being-in-the-world is a distinctly human activity. Here we return full circle to the key questions animating my book: what is this human animal and how is she able to resist oppressive practices, (re)create her subjectivity, and imagine and begin to bring about (in concert with others) alternative social realities?

    1. Jean-Paul Sartre, “Orphée Noir,” in Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malgache de langue française, ed. Leopold Sedar Senghor (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1948), xx, my translation.

    2. Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Richard Philcox (New York: Grove, 2004), 236.

    3. Ibid.

    4. Ibid., 237­–38.

    5. See also Nigel Gibson, Fanon: The Postcolonial Imagination. According to Gibson, “for Fanon, active resistance was the first stage toward self-discovery, and he was well aware that in its early stages anticolonial action was an inversion of colonial Manicheanism and remained within its framework” (13).

    6. Nielsen, FFDS, 91–92.

    7. David Scott, Refashioning Futures: Criticism after Postcoloniality (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), 205.

    8. Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, rev. ed., trans. Richard Philcox (New York: Grove, 2008), 111, 112. For an excellent analysis of the complex relationship between Fanon and Sartre, including their theoretical and socio-political similarities and differences concerning decolonization, see Bennetta Jules-Rosette, “Jean-Paul Sartre and the Philosophy of Négritude: Race, Self, and Society,” Theory and Society 36 (2007) esp. 276–81.

    9. Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, 206.



All That Jazz

Duns Scotus and Some Additional Dimensions of Divine Power

Cynthia R. Nielsen brings several thinkers from the premodern, modern, and postmodern traditions into a fruitful dialogue on social construction and freedom. Her chapter devoted to John Duns Scotus makes a strong case for this conceptual symbiosis. Nielsen argues that Scotus’s conception of freedom as an agent’s self-determining power to cognize and then choose from among available alternatives helps explicate the freedom Michel Foucault attributes to persons capable of pursuing different options in an evolving network of power relationships. Since, according to Scotus, an agent’s choices are not necessitated by anything apart from the agent herself, the resulting conception of freedom offers Foucault a way of avoiding an overly deterministic picture of human beings as entirely conditioned by their prior social and biological circumstances. Reciprocally, Foucault’s emphasis upon the contingency of social conventions counteracts Scotus’s tendency to acquiesce in immoral practices of long duration, such as slavery, as if they were somehow inevitable. Finally, Scotus’s goal-oriented view of human freedom structured by intrinsic, transcultural tendencies to acquire autonomy, pursue self-development, and obtain other natural goods justifies Foucault’s preference for liberating over oppressive power relationships while also clarifying the nature of universal human rights championed by Frederick Douglass and Franz Fanon.

My purpose is not to challenge Nielsen’s insightful analysis but to facilitate further dialogue by pinpointing a problem with the Scotist conception of freedom. Specifically, there is a serious tension between Scotus’s claim that God possesses the absolute power to will contrary to what He actually wills and Scotus’s contention that God cannot dispense from strict natural law. Given this tension, Foucault might object that the Scotist conception of freedom is incoherent, and thus can make no positive contribution to a plausible account of interpersonal power relationships necessary for a proper understanding of social construction. I will argue that his formal distinction and his notion of superabundant sufficiency enable the Subtle Doctor to meet the foregoing objection. Therefore, the Scotist conception of freedom remains sufficiently clear to play the pivotal role Nielsen assigns it in the ongoing conversation about social construction and freedom.

Active Powers, Synchronic Contingency, and Superabundant Sufficiency

Scotus’s ontology includes agents possessing active potencies, or powers, in virtue of their properties. Some powers are purely natural. In virtue of its property of heat, flame possesses the power to burn wood under normal conditions. There are also purely rational powers. In virtue of my property of understanding mathematics, I possess the power to judge that 2 + 2 = 4. A purely natural power or a purely rational power typically yields only one kind of effect under given conditions.1 Flame cannot freeze water, and I cannot seriously judge that 2 + 2 = 765.

By contrast, in virtue of their cognitive and conative properties, human beings, angels, and God all possess freedom as an active power to act differently under the same conditions. In virtue of her properties of judging Tom to be a qualified candidate and desiring to fill a vacancy in her department, Alice possesses the active power of choosing to offer Tom the job, choosing to offer the job to someone else, or even choosing to offer nobody the job. Thus neither her external conditions nor her internal mental properties but only Alice herself determines how she chooses. Although Scotus does not mention it, an analogue of this indeterminacy can be found in nature: in virtue of its properties of length and mass, a stick balanced on one end possesses the power to fall this way or that way or even no way at all but instead to remain balanced. However, this indeterminate power is grounded in the stick’s purely nonmental properties, whereas free will is an indeterminate power grounded both in the agent’s cognitive and conative properties. Hence Scotus regards free will not as a purely natural active power but as a hybrid active power that is partially cognitive (intellectual) and partially conative (volitional).

Scotus attributes two other notable features to free will. The first has become known as synchronic contingency, or the will’s ability to choose otherwise at the very moment it chooses as it actually does. Suppose that at tn Alice chooses to offer Tom the job. At tn she can also choose not to offer Tom the job. Scotus’s point is not that at tn Alice can simultaneously choose to offer Tom the job and choose not to offer him the job, which is impossible, but that when she chooses to offer Tom the job her choice at tn is entirely contingent. Scotus seeks the ontological basis for this specific contingency. Some philosophers might propose that the contingency of Alice’s choice consists in the fact that at the moment tn-1 before she made it, she was able either to choose to offer Tom the job or to choose not to offer him the job. Yet if this fact only exists at tn-1, then it provides no ontological explanation of why Alice’s actual choice is contingent, since her choice only exists at tn.2 Scotus supplies the missing explanation by “carrying forward” Alice’s ability to the moment of Alice’s actual choice: the contingency of Alice’s choice consists in the fact that at tn itself Alice is able either to choose to offer Tom a job or to choose not to offer him a job. Though Scotus maintains that the divine nature does not exist in time but only in eternity, he can give a similar explanation of why divine choices are contingent: the contingency of God’s eternal choice to create the universe consists in the fact that in eternity God is able to choose to create the universe, to create some other universe, or even choose to create no universe at all.

Scotus also distinguishes indeterminacy of sufficiency based on a lack of actuality, such as a seed’s potential to grow when exposed to actual sunlight, from what he calls superabundant sufficiency, the second feature he attributes to free will:

Something indeterminate in the second sense, however, can determine itself. If this could occur where some limited actuality exists, how much more where the actuality is unlimited! For it would lack nothing simply required for an acting principle.3

The superabundant sufficiency possessed both by the uncreated divine will and angelic or human wills is entirely rooted in the agent’s own actuality. What this actuality might be will become clearer after we have considered a problem with Scotus’s view of free will.

Strict Natural Law and Divine Dispensation

Scotus distinguishes strict from extended cases of natural law. A strict natural law is either a per se nota proposition that is true in virtue of the meanings of its terms or logically follows from such a proposition. As examples Scotus gives the first two commandments: “You shall have no other gods before me,” and “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.” Scotus reasons that “If God exists, then God alone should be loved as God” expresses a per se nota proposition, since by definition God is perfect goodness and only perfect goodness should be loved for its own sake. It logically follows that nothing other than God should be loved for its own sake. Furthermore, since showing something irreverence is incompatible with loving it, God should also be shown no irreverence (e.g., by taking His name in vain). Scotus concludes that God cannot dispense from these strict natural laws. But in extraordinary circumstances God can dispense from natural laws in the extended sense, such as the commandments against killing or stealing, since they neither are nor logically follow from per se nota propositions. Nevertheless, Scotus believes these later commandments to be “exceedingly in harmony” with the first two.4

Something is puzzling here. Certainly it lies within God’s power to command someone to love something else as God, or to command someone to show Him irreverence. God need only perform acts that any free human being can easily perform, such as saying, “John, I command you to love Baal for Baal’s own sake!” or writing, “Jane, you are hereby ordered take my name in vain five minutes from now!” Indeed, Scotus’s application of synchronic contingency to eternal divine choices appears to have precisely this consequence: although God eternally commands that we have no other gods before Him and never take His name in vain, God is eternally capable of dispensing from these strict natural laws by commanding the contrary.

Scotus might reply that the first two commandments are still crucially different from the rest. In extraordinary circumstances God can make it morally permissible or even morally obligatory to kill, steal, have more than one spouse, and so forth. Yet under no circumstances can God make it permissible or obligatory to love something other than perfect goodness for its own sake or to treat perfect goodness irreverently. So, since God is perfect goodness itself, under no circumstances can He make it permissible or obligatory to love something other than Himself for its own sake or to show Him irreverence.

However, this reply does not really get to the heart of the matter. God could dispense from the first two commandments, not by willing that what is contrary to these natural laws be morally just, but by willing that what is contrary to these morally just natural laws be done. For example, even though God commands us to act morally by obeying these laws, rewards us when we do, and punishes us when we do not, He could instead command us to act immorally by disobeying these laws, reward us when we do, and punish us when we do not.

Two unattractive options are available to Scotus. He could deny that God can command us to violate the first two commandments. But then there is something any intelligent creature can do that God cannot do, in which case God is not truly omnipotent. Alternatively Scotus could agree that God can command us to violate the first two commandments but deny that He would then command us to act immorally; instead God would ordain that disobeying these commandments is morally just. More generally, God cannot dispense from strict natural laws because whatever God wills is ipso facto a strict natural law. A disturbing consequence is that if God willed the torture of innocents, then torturing them would be morally just.

A Scotist Solution

Intuitively, an explanation for why God cannot dispense from strict natural law and still be omnipotent ought to lie in God’s perfect goodness. Scotus holds that the idea of perfect goodness is formally distinct both from the divine essence and the multitude of other ideas existing therein. For there to be a formal distinction between X and Y, X and Y must differ independently of our thinking, be thinkable independently of each other, and be capable inseparable existence in something yet separately realizable elsewhere. Intelligence and justice are formally distinct, since they do not differ merely because we think they do, can be thought of independently of one another, and exist inseparably in God yet are separately realizable elsewhere (e.g., in George, who is smart but unjust, and in Bob, who is just but ignorant).5 Similarly, the idea of perfect goodness exists inseparably along with the other ideas in the divine essence; yet the idea of perfect goodness, the divine essence, and the other ideas in it are separately realizable (e.g., in thinking creatures who possess some idea of perfect goodness without possessing the other ideas), would differ from each other even if there were no thinking creatures, and can be thought of independently of one other.

But what is the content of the idea of perfect goodness? Arguably, a perfectly good agent invariably chooses goodness while always possessing the power to choose evil. The point becomes clear in connection with a species of perfect goodness: a perfect altruist invariably chooses to help others even though she can always choose to harm them; a less perfect altruist always helps others but is incapable of choosing otherwise. Consequently, the perfect altruist deserves greater praise for her altruism. Her power to harm others does not negate her perfect altruism; rather, the fact that she can harm others yet never chooses to do so is precisely why she is a perfect altruist worthy of greater praise. Similarly, Scotus might contend, the fact that God is eternally capable of commanding us to love something besides Him for its own sake, to show Him irreverence, or to commit other moral evils while never exercising this capacity is precisely why God is perfectly good. Since commanding someone to disobey a strict natural law is evil, the idea of perfect goodness determines that God can but never will command us to disobey a strict natural law. On the other hand, under extraordinary circumstances commanding someone to disobey an extended natural law is not evil but permissible or even obligatory. Hence the idea of perfect goodness determines that God not only can but also may or sometimes even must command us to disobey an extended natural law.

For Scotus, God’s idea of perfect goodness is not external to God but inseparable from the divine essence, from which God’s idea is only formally distinct. Thus nothing else besides God determines that God can but never will command us to disobey a strict natural law, as well as that God not only can but may or sometimes even must command us to disobey an extended natural law. Superabundant sufficiency is the actuality in virtue of which the will of an intelligent agent possesses synchronic contingency. In God, this actuality consists in God’s formally distinct idea of perfect goodness, in virtue of which God never chooses evil while eternally possessing the ability to choose evil. In an intelligent creature, the actuality consists in the creature itself along with the cognitive and conative properties in virtue of which it chooses. Since the latter actuality does not determine that the creature never chooses evil while simultaneously possessing the ability to choose evil, superabundant sufficiency in the creature is plainly inferior to superabundant sufficiency in God.

Questions remain, but hopefully enough questions have been answered to show that Scotus’s view of the will is sufficiently clear for Nielsen’s purposes.

  1. See John Duns Scotus, Questions on the Metaphysics IX, q.15, in Duns Scotus on the Will and Morality, trans. Allan B. Wolter, OFM, ed. William A. Frank (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America, 1997), 136–50.

  2. See ibid., 148, where Scotus writes, “And these persons see no way of saving the claim that now the will has a potency for the opposite of the state it is in. This is absurd, however, for it would mean that necessity and contingency are not properly conditions of being at the time they exist.”

  3. Ibid., 140.

  4. See Scotus, Ordinatio III, suppl., dist. 37, in Duns Scotus on the Will and Morality, 198–207.

  5. See John Duns Scotus, Ordinatio 1, d. 2, pars 2, qq. 1-4, n. 390, in Opera Omnia (Vatican City: Vatican Polyglot Press, 1950–).

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    Cynthia R. Nielsen


    A Response to Peter S. Dillard

    I am very grateful to Peter Dillard for providing such a clear articulation of Scotus’s position on freedom and for drawing our attention to a problem in the Subtle Doctor’s account of freedom. Not only does Dillard pinpoint a tension in Scotus’s claim that “God possesses absolute power to will contrary to what He actually wills” and that “God cannot dispense from natural law,” but he also shows how Scotus—by making use of his own arguments regarding the formal distinction and superabundant sufficiency—can overcome objections that his account is incoherent and thus has nothing to offer in contemporary discussions of power, freedom, and social construction. I will not recount Dillard’s argument here, as he has presented it with crystal clarity. Rather I will simply pose a few questions for further thought and briefly discuss those themes and aspects of Scotus’s work that motivated my engagement with him.

    As Dillard explains, on Scotus’s account superabundant sufficiency applies both to God and humans. However, in God this actually is superior as it determines that God never choses evil while always possessing the ability to chose evil. Such is clearly not the case for humans. Even so, humans possess the ability to act otherwise—that is, humans are agents with self-determining power to consider various options via their cognitive operations and to choose from among various options. Wouldn’t this be enough for Foucault? In other words, why is the theological component necessary for Foucault at all? In addition, although a Christian account of human being (which includes our acting freely as moral agents) typically involves the notion of humans’ having their telos in God, Foucault’s account doesn’t require this kind of (theological) telic goal. Even so, couldn’t one adopt (something like) Scotus’s account of freedom (while bracketing his theological commitments) as ontologically constitutive of human being? If so, then one, so it seems, would be able to give an answer as to why it is “natural” for humans to resist when their freedom is threatened by other humans, unjust laws, totalitarian political regimes, etc. Given Foucault’s “thin” anthropology, as I argued in my book, his position falls short on precisely this point. That is, because he sidesteps discussions of human ontology, his opposition to relations of violence becomes a mere preference with no justification.

    Although I do not argue in my book that we must adopt Scotus’s position and only Scotus’s position, I do claim that a more robust philosophical anthropology is needed. Scotus’s metaphysics of freedom is, for me, a way to “press my thinking” on both matters of human ontology and how what we are translates into our social, political, and existential lived experience. However, my thinking on such matters is in no way “settled.”

    Other aspects of the Subtle Doctor that motivated my study of his work are his argument against slavery, his emphasis on the contingency of the created world, and his use of musical metaphors to explicate the moral life. Of course, given my interest in the philosophy of race, ethics, and social and political philosophy, Scotus’s argument against slavery was of particular interest to me.1 In the paragraphs that follow, I briefly explain Scotus’s multidimensional account of freedom and then highlight how his views on freedom come together with Fanon’s and Douglass’s.2

    In Ord. IV.36.1—the same section where Scotus condemns Aristotle’s view of “natural” slavery and argues that slavery is incompatible with natural law—the Subtle Doctor pens a paragraph quite similar to passages in Douglass’s work Narrative of the Life.3 He begins by once again reiterating his disdain for Aristotle’s theory, which here he calls “accursed slavery [servitude illa maledicta]” because it treats the slave as mere tool and property of his master. Then he gives us the following passage, affirming both the slave’s humanity and her agency as a being-possessing-free will, and yet whose freedom and maximum human potential, as a result of slavery, cannot be fully realized.

    It is not the case that he is only led in his actions and does not lead in any actions, because no matter how much of a slave he might be, even so he is a human being and thus has free will. From this, it is evident [patet] the great cruelty involved in first effecting [inductione] slavery, because it makes a human being with free will and a master of his own actions for the purpose of pursuing [agendum] virtue [ad virtuose], as though a brute animal, in view of the fact that he neither profits from [utentem] free will nor is able to pursue [agere] virtue.[footnote]My translation. Wolter, Will and Morality (Latin/English ed.), 532; Scotus, Ord. IV, d. 36, q. 1.[/footnote]

    Here Scotus indicates that he understood freedom in different aspects, expressions, or senses. That is, our ontological freedom serves as the ground for our moral and political freedom. In brief, for Scotus our ontological freedom is tied to our volitional capacity—a capacity that he calls “will.” This ontological freedom is essential to human being and cannot be lost. However, it is rendered politically speaking, meaningless, when a human is enslaved because such freedom is meant to be expressed concretely; thus, it has a telic character. Ontological freedom, for Scotus, naturally has a social and political dimension. Lastly, we have moral freedom. Moral freedom speaks to our ability to will (or not), to nill (or not), and to will not to will. Moral freedom moves us into the realm of human responsibility, as here our actions can be judged praiseworthy or blameworthy. For Scotus, both moral freedom and political freedom are made possible by our ontological freedom. Translating Scotus’s observations in the aforementioned passage into contemporary language, we might say that social conditioning impacts our moral freedom. That is, our ability to develop a virtuous character can be in greater or lesser degrees increased or diminished by our various social contexts—familial, institutional, and so forth. And here we return to Scotus’s claim in Ordinatio IV.36.1 that slavery “makes a human being with free will and a master of his own actions for the purpose of pursuing virtue, as though a brute animal, in view of the fact that he neither profits from free will nor is able to pursue virtue.” For example, slaves often had little or no choice regarding education, residence, work, and sexual intimacy. In fact, most often these decisions were made by one’s master and supported by the social, political, and legal discourses and practices. Clearly, slaves living in such an oppressive context did not flourish nor reach their full human potential. Their lives were devalued and degraded, and, as Scotus might put it, their essential nature (ontological freedom) was violated, thus hindering the development of their moral freedom and rendering void their political freedom.

    Of course, political freedom in many ways overlaps with moral freedom. Political freedom takes us into the sphere of positive human law, where we deal with legal and other citizens’ rights as given by the state or similar authority. Such laws often concern property rights, marital rights, voting rights, and so forth. Political rights vary from regime to regime; however, such rights are granted to all citizens and are fundamental to full participation in the sociopolitical body. Such citizen rights are highly valued human goods; thus, to refuse them to a group of people is to do violence to what is to be human, as it functionally cancels the concrete expression of human freedom in its various dimensions and forces an unnatural dualism on both human being and human living-in-the-world.

    Scotus’s thinking on these matters intrigued me, as it seemed in many ways consonant with Douglass’s and Fanon’s analyses of the importance of moral and political freedom as well as civic and human rights. (This is not to say that Scotus’s view is without its problems; as I point out in my chapter, even though he presents a powerful argument against slavery, he ends up preserving the status quo and thus fails to “deliver” on what he saw so clearly as an injustice and a contradiction between positive law and natural law.) Here Douglass and Fanon most definitely deliver. That is, Douglass and Fanon argue (and never take back!) that when humans are dispossessed of political freedom, having no political voice or legal recourse, they become literally living targets. In addition, both Douglass and Fanon make reference to a shared humanity and even to universal human rights in their condemnations of slavery and colonization. Douglass identified as a Christian and thus his arguments have a religious dimension as well as a humanist thrust. Even so, as Fanon’s arguments make clear, religious faith is not a prerequisite for the condemnation of violent and unjust treatment of fellow humans. Both men acknowledge and base their arguments on what they identify as distinctive human capacities (viz. volitional and cognitive capacities) and both unequivocally condemn slavery and colonization, which, in effect, treat fellow humans as if such capacities were absent.

    In such appeals to common human nature or to universal human rights in order to substantiate their moral judgments, both Fanon and Douglass, so it seems to me, share significant points of agreement with Scotus. And yet, in their unyielding commitment to seeing justice realized in the here-and-now rather than in the there-to-come, Fanon and Douglass expose the incoherency and “bad faith” of Scotus’s clinging to the status quo; thus, the former offer helpful correctives not only to Scotus’s position, but also to those positions, attitudes, and ways-of-being so prevalent today, which in their own ways refuse to see systems of racial and economic injustice and oppression for what they are: violent, inhumane, and degrading. As the recent racially motivated murders of nine precious black lives in Charleston, South Carolina, makes clear, a genuine dialogue on these issues has yet to begin.

    1. For those interested in the particulars of Scotus’s argument against slavery, see Foucault, Douglass, Fanon, and Scotus in Dialogue, 126–29.

    2. My discussion here of Scotus’s multidimensional account of freedom is more or less a restating of portions of my chapter devoted to Scotus. See, for example, Foucault, Douglass, Fanon, and Scotus in Dialogue, 125–35.

    3. See, for example, Douglass, Narrative of the Life, 58, 60, 65.