(This is an essay I wrote for my philosophy class last semester and one I am very proud of! It is the start of a continued conversation about justice…)
The task of undergoing a communal re-imagining about what it means to be just is demanded in the dawn of this Anthropocene age. Justice is not a “‘tolerant’ inclusion under conditions of the normal” (Betcher) or the “supreme direction of the general will” (Rousseau 564) but is instead a radical way of being that responds to the call of the other in hospitality, welcome, communion and solidarity (Betcher). In the act of naming violent structures, there is a resistance that rejects modern valuation of bodies based on wholeness, perfection and usefulness. In fostering and welcoming in a new imagination that respects alterity, we realize that justice is a future ‘to come’ but is demanded now as we attend to the call of the other.
Modernism’s fixation on individual liberty and equality created a “mastery over” outlook on the world, which allowed for colonialism, slavery, the rise of capitalism and the destruction of the Earth. John Locke writes about how the Earth is beautiful insofar as it is useful to humans, and it is to be forced into submission, for this is the end goal of the planet: “God, who hath given the world to men in common, hath also given them reason to make use of it to the best advantage of life, and convenience” (Locke 457). The ownership of land in private property extends to the capitalist invention of ownership of humans and chattel slavery, a patriarchal “fathering” of the nationstate over the people, which values certain “productive” bodies over others. It also sets up a system where some human beings are labeled and identified as those who can be owned by others, justified by the modern category of being ‘subhuman.’
Since “The end of law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom” (Locke 465), justice, in a modern sense, is defined in terms of preserving or enlarging liberty, which in the case of America, has been ‘whiteness.’ “The supposedly universal ‘human’ was always white, Western, modern, able-bodied and heterosexual man… the self of market capitalism” (Colebrook 91). ‘Equality’ has been code for whiteness, and it is white people who are the ones who can own other human beings and not be owned, thus retaining their ‘freedom.’ Difference and otherness ends up being destroyed (“I should have a right to destroy that which threatens me… ” (Locke 454)) as that which is not beautiful by modern standards. If “The value, or WORTH of a man, is as of all other things, his price; that is to say, so much as would be given for the use of his power… a thing dependant on the need and judgement of another…” (Hobbes 388), then bodies that do not adhere to this perceived worth or who don’t have a capitalist pricetag are deemed subhuman. Sharon Betcher speaks about the harm this does to disabled bodies who do not fit into this “hallucination of wholeness,” and even theology does harm to disabled bodies, as it assumes “pain to be an argument against existence” which she says puts theology under the “cult-ture of the public appearance of capitalism,” merely reinforcing modern ideals of beauty and health that serve capitalism and ‘whiteness.’
When justice is defined as the laws of a nation-state or the “preservation of freedom,” a mindset of extreme individualism and mastery-over takes hold and manifests itself in harmful structures and discourses. When justice becomes synonymous with law and “reason,” this allows for valuation of certain bodies over others. For the modernists, for justice to be realized, everything must be unified so that there is one ideology (freedom), where alterity/otherhood is subsumed into the “general will” so there is nothing to make war with: “Each of us puts in common his person and his whole power under the supreme direction of the general will; and in return we receive in a body every member as an indivisible part of the whole” (Rousseau 564).
What it means to exist in the heel of modern thought, in America, means to live with the permeating ideology of the American ‘Dream’ which is a modern imaginatory discourse of white supremacy and the desire to be “white.” Coates writes about how black bodies in America have been forced to give over their bodies and lives for the sake of the Dream/American regime. This is not simply an ideal, it is a structure of racism that “is a visceral experience” that “dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth” (Coates 10). And yet Americans who “believe themselves to be white” and buy into the lie of the Dream don’t recognize the reality of racism (the reality of America) because they have “good intentions” and “aren’t racist,” thus reinforcing the power of the Dream by saying all racism is simply personal prejudice. People who “believe themselves to be white” have “good intentions,” and this keeps racist systems invisible and working: “The point of this language of ‘intention’ and ‘personal responsibility’ is a broad exoneration. Mistakes were made. Bodies were broken. People were enslaved. We meant well. We tried our best. ‘Good intention’ is a hall pass through history, a sleeping pill that ensures the Dream” (Coates 33).
The Dream operates as a kind of panopticism that makes us police ourselves so that we become entrenched in this subjugation that makes bodies “useful” for capitalism and white supremacy: “The body becomes a useful force only if it is both a productive body and a subjugated body” (Foucault 26). The Dream “thrives on generalization, on limiting the number of possible questions, on privileging immediate answers” (Coates 50) so that it is difficult to even begin to think differently or form new imaginations because the system seeks to remain invisible. That’s why there is resistance in naming ‘the Dream’ and naming racism as a structure because it begins to play with our imaginations in a way that forces us to confront this reality. Subjugating bodies so as to make them useful instruments for capitalism has led to slavery and the vast destruction of the Earth, which are related phenomena. The Earth will respond to its destruction: “Something more awful than all our African ancestors is rising with the seas. The two phenomena are known to each other. It was the cotton that passed through our chained hands that inaugurated this age” (Coates 151).
The Earth, like the black bodies that remain even in the horrific violence of slavery, mass incarceration and police brutality, resists its appropriation, resists its becoming “standing-reserve.” The planet is a vastly unassimilable Other that exceeds the human condition and is transcendent. The human attitude of seeing the Earth as lying in wait to consume and master-over is a way of relating to the world and to other human beings that is radically reductive and dehumanizing. Mike Davis gives a tangible account of what happens to human beings when capitalism reigns and “masters-over,” extracting life from the most vulnerable populations: “The coerced tribute that the Third World pays to the First World has been the literal difference between life and death for millions of poor people” (Davis 148). It is ultimately policy that has done this, under the pressures and demands of capitalism: ‘“Fragility’ is simply a synonym for systematic government neglect of environmental safety, often in the face of foreign financial pressures” (Davis 125). The danger is a failure of imagination to act toward justice in this issue that is so devastatingly overwhelming. We need new language to account for waste and to realize that we must come together communally to demand policy change. What is called for is a different way of being that resists these oppressive and destructive discourses of modernism and capitalism. There is a different way to be, there is a You to encounter that calls me into being, a planet that resists subjugation and will respond with a “fire in the sky” (Coates 150).
The call of each of us every day is to confess the ways in which we have failed to seek and live out justice. The call for us is to confess and re-imagine, to push toward the justice ‘to come’ with our language and actions—pushing against our own immanence, our own limits. Justice always has to do with the singular one, the overlooked and marginalized one, not the generalized “will” that annihilates otherness. Justice is ‘to come,’ it is the future possibility and future gift, but it is urgently demanded now. We need this new imagination and new possibility, for, “Rather than continue to contemplate our annihilation, contributing to it or declaring hopelessness in front of it, we should at least try another approach… to exclude patriarchy in all its expressions and institutionalized forms of violence: domination, exploitation, slavery, colonialism, profit, exclusion, mafia, monarchy, oligarchy, religious wars” (Colebrook 96).
Ultimately, it is policy that must answer this deep injustice and predation that modernism created, but we need a conversation and renewed imagination in order to begin the work of changing policy collectively and corporeally. Even though policy change is demanded, justice transcends policy into something already beyond capitalism and beyond government: “Our inability to imagine complete or final justice should not yield resignation, nor—as we start to think about climate change—should we accept a cost-benefit analysis of how much justice we can afford; no conception of justice and its possibilities can forestall what justice as a conception might become, might do, might offer” (Colebrook 102). Justice is a transcendent ‘to come,’ inviting us to “dwell in possibility,” as Emily Dickinson would say.
Poetry and art open up a possible way of undergoing a communal re-imagination. “Poetry aims for an economy of truth… I found that these loose and useless words were not separate from loose and useless thoughts” (Coates 51). Heidegger likewise says poetry and the act of making art invites another way to relate to the Earth that is not mastery-over: “Yet the more questioningly we ponder the essence of technology, the more mysterious the essence of art becomes” (Heidegger 341). Art pushes our own limits and leads us into a posture of unknowing and asking questions that have not been asked before, demanding that we stand honestly before the horrors inflicted on the world and on human beings. In this act we “[turn] away from the brightly rendered version of [America] as it has always declared itself and [turn] toward something murkier and unknown” (Coates 98). The unknown place art takes us opens a space for conversation to emerge about justice, for “to speak, to experience, to act, to write and even to destroy anticipates a future that is not yet, or that is ‘to come’” (Colebrook 103). The promissory gift of the future, of justice, can be opened with art that releases any sense of mastery-over, instead confessing its limits and pushing its limits.
Even in an Anthropocene age of slums, racism, dehumanization and ecological devastation, “we cannot definitely erase the possibility of future justice, because no event can discount the potentiality of justice (including direct predictions), the future seems to provoke us not to close down possibility” (Colebrook 105). The very possibility of justice demands that we not give in to the idolatrous lies of the Dream. To become human, then, in the context of the realities of American white-supremacy, is to “tumble… out of the beautiful Dream” and “live… down here in the world… To awaken them is to reveal that they are an empire of humans and, like all empires of humans, are built on the destruction of the body. It is to stain their nobility, to make them vulnerable, fallibile, breakable humans” (Coates 143). To recognize ourselves as vulnerable, fallible humans and to work toward a new imagination is to become enfleshed in the world, “unable to hide the wounds, tears, disfigurements, desires, that a more abstract language of embodiment often can” (Betcher). Justice, as always concerned with the singular, calls us to stand in solidarity with the oppressed ones now, in this moment, in this life. We join together in a promissory dance that hopes for a better world while confronting the brutal realities of the world we have created. “Yes, we have lost, yes, we are losing, we are loosing certain energizing sensibilities,” but oppressed bodies remain, and “we wake to life, like an amputee awaking to the morning after” (Betcher), forced to confront and confess the limitations that come with being enfleshed in the world, but the “closer we come to the danger,” to vulnerability, fallibility and the possibility of destruction, “the more brightly do the ways into the saving power begin to shine and the more questioning we become” (Heidegger 341). Questioning, naming and imagining are saving powers of resistance.
As we live into the Anthropocene and confront the capitalist destruction of the Earth, and the white-supremacist destruction of otherness, we see that “the passage marks loss, but also possibility, transfigurative possibility” (Betcher). The fact that these very structures exist calls for their radical overturning, and “In the very mark of our defeat and limit we are given a time to come; we are given a ‘we’, a ‘humanity to come’” (Colebrook 105). A humanity that gathers in solidarity, respects alterity, and celebrates difference as a ‘we’ that reimagines what it means to live in the Anthropocene with a hopeful, communal resistance to violence in all of its forms.
Betcher, Sharon. “Crip/tography: Disability Theology in the Ruins of God.” Youtube, 15 April 2014.
Cahn, Steven M. Classics of Political and Moral Philosophy. 2nd ed., Oxford University Press, 2012.
Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me. The Text Publishing Company, 2015.
Colebrook, Claire. Twilight of the Anthropocene Idols. Open Humanities Press, 2016.
Davis, Mike. Planet of Slums. Verso, 2006.
Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish. Random House, 1977.
Heidegger, Martin. Basic Writings. HarperCollins, 1977.