Introduction Krisis 2019-1

This new issue of Krisis covers a wide array of subjects that are close to the aims and legacy of our journal. This issue includes reflections on contemporary political developments both on the international stage and with regards to more local levels, paying attention as well to the academic milieu in which many of our readers and contributors find themselves. As critical reflections on any of these developments presuppose a self-reflective attitude towards the means, potentials and ends of critique, it is no coincidence that the aforementioned topicalities are accompanied in this issue by engagements with central concepts and thinkers from the social, political and cultural philosophical traditions in which Krisis inscribes itself. Indeed, given the ways in which we are confronted with political agendas that hardly could be described otherwise than as “regressive,” the very title of our journal once again proves to be timely, just as the invocation of critical thought that is central to all of our contributions.

This issue contains a dossier of five essays on the topic of “Shame and Citizenship in Democracy,” which results from a workshop held at the University of Amsterdam in October 2017. Jill Locke’s essay discusses how the trope of the child is used in the public debate about the current President of the United States: Donald Trump. Josef Früchtl’s contribution analyzes the emergence of the Wutbürger and argues for the political potential of impertinence. Three shorter essays by Darryl Barthé, Lisa Koks & Natalie Scholz, and Tessa de Vet further engage with the relation between shame and democracy.

Furthermore, two articles are included in this issue. In Annemarije Hagen’s contribution she argues that political struggles do not have to rely on an account of the good life, but rather aim at the contestation of the limits of articulated universals. Ivana Perica’s article considers Jacques Rancière’s critique of Hannah Arendt’s thought, and aims – against Rancière’s own position – to bring both thinkers together and show the resonances between their projects.

Speaking of resonance, two interviews found their way to this issue. Our editors Robin Celikates and Thijs Lijster discussed Hartmut Rosa’s work on the concept of “resonance” and other topics with the author himself. Anna Blijdenstein’s conversation with Cécile Laborde on its turn engages with topics such as liberalism and religion, secularism, tolerance, and immigrant integration in Laborde’s oeuvre.

Three review-essays found their way as well to this issue. Didier Fassin takes issue with Chantal Mouffe’s call for a Left populism. Willem Halffman discusses the legacy of the 2016 Maagdenhuis occupation at the University of Amsterdam as represented in two publications, and Sigmund Bruno Schilpzand and Tom Kayzel discuss Bruno Latour’s Reset Modernity-project.

Six further book reviews complete this issue. Alma Apt discusses the Dutch translation of Isabell Lorey’s Regierung der Prekären; Natasha Basu reviews Natasha King’s No Borders; Corrado Fumagalli assesses Ryan Muldoon’s Social Contract Theory for a Diverse World; Hans Radder engages with Robert Frodeman and Adam Briggle’s Socrates tenured; Paul Raekstad discusses Elizabeth Anderson’s Private Government; and Robert Sinnerbrink reviews Aesthetic Marx, edited by Johan F. Hartle & Samir Gandesha.

How to Engage in Practices of Critique? From a Universal Conception of the Good Life to the Contestation of Universals


This paper departs from a central methodological problem within critical theory. Critical social theories examine the ways in which social structures and arrangements prohibit human beings from flourishing with the aim to overcome the obstacles that these structures pose. Critical theorists working within the Habermasian tradition, of which Maeve Cooke is a notable example, have argued that a conception of the good society must inform aspired changes. A question that immediately needs to be addressed when taking such a conception as a point of reference, is how to engage in practices of social critique without taking an authoritarian stance. In this paper, I will argue against a metaphysical notion of the good as an object that transcends particular interpretations of the good life. Such a notion needs to be rejected precisely because, as Cooke herself acknowledges, a tension exists between this notion, which should hold for all individuals, and the anti-authoritarian aim of critical theory, which, as stated by Raymond Geuss (1981), claims that agents have to subscribe to the aspired changes by their own reasons.

Cooke tries to deal with this tension by arguing in favour of a conception of the good life that posits “an idea of ethical validity that is at once context-transcending and justification-dependent” (Cooke 2018, 768). She develops this position in her book Re-Presenting the Good Society (2006) in which she defends the idea of a good society, but acknowledges the gap, or “productive tension,” between an idea of the good and different competing articulations and representations of such an idea (2006, 189). Cooke develops her position through an engagement with thinkers working within the Frankfurt School tradition of critical theory – such as Jürgen Habermas and Axel Honneth – as well as by integrating insights from the neo-pragmatist thought of Richard Rorty, and by using the post-structuralist theories of Ernesto Laclau and Judith Butler. As Cooke works within the Habermasian tradition, she argues in favour of a utopian idea of the good society. It must be noted, however, that Cooke does acknowledge and deal with a number of critical remarks from the aforementioned perspectives as well. I will take her approach as an important and nuanced elaboration of the position which holds that the emancipatory efforts of critical theories should be guided by the image of a “good society”. At the same time, I argue that the way in which Cooke handles this methodological tension results in a position that takes distance from the actual critical enterprise of social critique. By providing an ethical theory, Cooke constructs her argument on an abstract level which leaves social critique aside. It is my argument that critical theory must go beyond the abstract reflections concerning the good society. To provide a critical approach that has both a solution for the methodological tension mentioned above and which also remains productively critical, I will argue in favour of a radical, bottom-up approach. I will base this approach on insights drawn from the work of James Ingram, Étienne Balibar and Judith Butler. In their works, struggles are not guided by an idea of the good life, but more negatively, by the contestation of the limits of articulated universals, practiced by those who are excluded and marginalized. This engagement within practices of critique then should not be understood as an instalment of a principle of universality, but rather as a process of universalization.

Conditions for Societal Transformation: Ethical Direction and Motivational Force

As stated by Raymond Geuss, critical social theories aim at the emancipation and enlightenment of individuals (Geuss 1981, 2). The strict meaning of the term “critical social theory” refers to several generations of social theorists known as “The Frankfurt School.” The most notable members of this school – all working within the tradition of Western Marxism – are Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno, Jürgen Habermas, and Axel Honneth. However, in most current debates, “critical social theory” is used in a more general sense: critical social theory is not limited to the “Frankfurt School” anymore, but, as formulated by Maeve Cooke, includes any philosophical approach “that looks critically at social arrangements from the point of view of the obstacles they pose for individual human flourishing” (Cooke 2006, 7).

Consequently, Cooke nuances the distinction between critical social theory in the strict and general sense. Besides, she points at the differences between the subsequent generations of the Frankfurt School theorists (Cooke 2006, 7). Furthermore, she argues that the interdisciplinary character of critical analysis and the inclusion of empirical findings is no longer unique to the tradition of the Frankfurt School, but can be found as well in other instances of social critique formulated outside this tradition, such as in the work of Michel Foucault (Cooke 2006, 7). As we can no longer clearly distinguish between the critical philosophy of the Frankfurt School and that of other approaches, there is no need to exclude critical thinkers stemming from traditions such as post-structuralism when referring to social critique. Cooke’s commitment to a more general understanding of critical social theory is reflected by her extensive engagement with contemporary thinkers from different traditions engaging in social critique. As pointed out by Amy Allen, Cooke’s position “represents a bold and important new path for critical theory, one that moves decisively beyond the sterile debates that cast Habermasian critical theory and post-structuralism as an either/or choice” (Allen 2008, 587).

In order to engage in social critique with the aim to work towards change for the better, critical theorists not only have to assume that human beings are formed by the structures and arrangements that construct the realities in which they live their lives, but also that these social structures and arrangements are “neither naturally necessary, nor historically inevitable” (Cooke 2006, 9). Only under these assumptions would it be possible to transform our social structures and arrangements into better ones. However, the social structures that hinder agents to fulfil their potentials might as well give rise to false conceptions of their interests and needs. To overcome given social arrangements therefore requires a change in the self-understanding of agents themselves. Cooke consequently argues that, to bring about emancipatory change, social critique needs to “address the question of transformation in a double respect: they do not only seek to identify possibilities for change in social arrangements, they also recognize that this may require changes in the existing perceptions of agent’s needs and interests” (Cooke 2006, 3).

In demanding a social and cognitive transformation, Cooke claims that social critique must be “guided by an idea of the good society in which the identified social obstacles to human flourishing would once and for all have been overcome” (Cooke 2006, 9, my italics). She defends this utopian vision by arguing for a “more or less determinate guiding idea of the good society.” (Cooke 2006, 3). In her view, it is impossible to engage in – or even to conceive of – practices of social critique without such an idea, simply because in that case no ethical reference point would be given from which to criticize our current social arrangements, nor would agents have access to any motivational imagery to keep them engaged in the critical enterprise. In the following paragraphs, I will unpack this argument by providing a short overview of Cooke’s main line of reasoning.

Cooke stresses that any idea of a good society is connected to modes of “redemption” and “perfection” by arguing that “the idea of redemption evidently has a connotation of perfection, since redemption conjures a state of absolute sufficiency, which implies that deficiency would once and for all have been overcome” (Cooke 2004, 418). The idea of perfectionism needs to be invoked because an idea of the good society cannot simply be the expression of the fulfilment of our current needs – since our needs might as well be distorted themselves. Therefore, an idea of the good society must evoke “an idea of best in the transcendent, absolute sense of ‘incapable of being bettered’” (Cooke 2006, 166). This transcendent conception of the good society then supplies the ethical standard from which we could then criticize the imperfect composition of our existing social arrangements.

This conception of the good –or best – society aims at being context-transcending, which implies that the good is not tied to a particular context. As Cooke puts it, these ideas “are not merely expressions of our deepest hopes and aspirations; they represent hopes and aspirations that everyone, everywhere should have if they are to be able to fulfil their potentials as human beings” (Cooke 2006, 15). Cooke contrasts this position with a so-called radical contextualist view which approaches ideas of the good as tied to a specific socio-cultural context. For Cooke, only a context-transcending view can be deployed in judgments that aim to be “cross-cultural” and “trans-historical” in their validity (Cooke 2006, 66) As such, a context-transcending idea of the good society can provide normative direction to social critique as well as an understanding of ethical progress which, in Cooke’s view, is necessary for emancipatory social thought.

Cooke acknowledges that the main problem with a context-transcending approach is that it takes an authoritarian position regarding progress and social change. The emancipatory aim of critical theory, however, requires an anti-authoritarian approach as ground for emancipatory critique: in order to enlighten and emancipate agents, it is of crucial importance that they pursue their very own ideas of the good, based on their own reasons and considerations. The authoritarian norm of a context-transcending idea of the good society thus stands at odds with the aims of critical theory. Indeed, it is of crucial importance for emancipation to assume that all human beings are capable of autonomous reasoning and moral judgments, and that these capacities need to be respected – as Cooke acknowledges as well (Cooke 2005, 383).

To account for this problem, Cooke reformulates the context-transcending validity of normative claims derived from conceptions of the good by specifying the tension between utopian thinking and anti-authoritarianism. To do so, she distinguishes two problematic aspects of utopianism: “bad utopianism” and “finalism”. The utopianisms that Cooke considers “bad” lack a meaningful connection with actual historical developments. Finalism in turn denies the contingency of human knowledge and presents the idea of the good society as a condition that is actually attainable, thereby violating the openness of history and historical development (Cooke 2006, 163). Cooke explains that to avoid these problems, some critical theorists have tried to get rid of images of the good by replacing them with empty images. She insists, however, that such “empty signifiers” are problematic themselves: not only is it hard to attribute any motivating power to an empty object, it would also be impossible to establish a connection between such motivation and its ethical value (2006, 163).

Instead of arguing for a purely negativistic approach, Cooke claims – and this is the driving force of her argument – that “we should conceive of the good society as re-presented in particular representations that are constitutively inadequate to it: such particular re-presentations seek to present the transcendent ethical object (‘the good society’) powerfully; however, they always fail to capture it completely” (Cooke 2006, 5, my italics). In other words, Cooke aims at finding ways to account for a context-transcending approach of social critique that does not lead to “epistemological and ethical authoritarianism” (Cooke 2006, 97). Her strategy to avoid the first form of authoritarianism is to accept and acknowledge that no standpoint exists independently from particular historical, cultural and social contexts. This means that every perspective – including that of the theorist (!) – is open to contestation. Regarding the second form of authoritarianism, finalism, Cooke suggests that the validity of ethical claims must be made “dependent on the reasoning of concrete human agents in historically specific socio-cultural contexts” (2005, 383).

A crucial step in avoiding both forms of authoritarianism is to regard different conceptions of the good life as “regulative ideas”. Amy Allen has pointed out that when conceptions of the good life are understood as regulative ideas, they remain fictitious ideals. Cooke’s key to avoid authoritarianism thus lies in the “awareness of our inability” to achieve these ideals as ends on their own (Allen 2008, 588). This means that, although our regulative ideas aim to grasp a transcendent utopian conception of the good society, we analogously need to acknowledge that we are never really capable of reaching that transcendent ethical object (Allen 2008, 588). However, Cooke does insist that it is possible to narrow the gap between the transcendent ethical object of the good life its representation, precisely because the latter provides ethical orientation and motivating force (Cooke 2006, 148).

Thus, Cooke argues in favour of a “middle position” between anti-authoritarianism and a notion of the good society to create a so-called productive tension as a way of resolving the uneasy relationship between them. In what follows, I will nevertheless demonstrate that Cooke’s provides a rather abstract ethical theory, thereby moving away from the actual practise of social critique. Under reference to Amy Allen’s (2008) and Ruth Sonderegger’s (2008) critical engagement with Cooke’s work, I will argue that in order for critical theory to remain critical, it is of principal importance to reposition the concept of contestation within social critique.

The Praxis of Social Critique

Amy Allen argues that the question which immediately comes to mind after examining Cooke’s approach is “how we should choose between competing fictional representations of the good society in a non-arbitrary (that is, rational) way” (Allen 2008, 589). Cooke adopts a Habermasian perspective when she claims that the only way to assess the validity of these representations is through “public processes of argumentation” that are “open-ended, inclusive, and fair” (Cooke 2006, 130-131). It must however be noted that Cooke’s approach differs from Habermas’ because Cooke emphasizes “the situatedness of our commitment to situated rationality” (Allen 2008, 589). As Cooke puts it, “the connection between validity and open-ended, inclusive, fair, and public argumentation is not a feature of communication in general but has come about in certain socio-cultural contexts as a result of historically contingent factors” (Cooke 2006, 132). This “situated rationality” provides Cooke with an explanation how to rationally choose between different representations of the good society without falling prey to authoritarianism (Allen 2008, 589).

Allen points out that Cooke’s endorsement of “situated rationality” makes it difficult to see how her view differs from that of so-called “‘radical’ contextualists” (Allen 2008, 589). At the same time, Allen acknowledges that Cooke develops a position that relies on representations of the good life that are “context-transcending” rather than “context-transcendent” (Allen 2008, 588). Although Cooke does refer to a metaphysical object – an object which transcends the different particular articulations of the “good”, her theory of the representations of the good is not metaphysical. We must keep in mind that in Cooke’s proposal, the particular representations which aim to articulate the transcendent conception of the good society are always incapable to fully capture their metaphysical object. By acknowledging this incapacity, Cooke thus carves out a so-called middle position.

But do we need such a transcendent ethical object – “the good society” – in order to formulate particular representations which are constitutively incapable of capturing it? This question is raised by Sonderegger, who, on Wittgensteinian grounds, challenges the need for such a transcendent object to account for different articulations of the idea of the good society. She argues that “it was Wittgenstein who raised doubts as to whether the identity of a concept (which transcends all applications) presupposes an essential core, and who questioned the reification of such a core in terms of ‘objects’. All we need, he contended, is enough overlap between specific uses and interpretations of the concept in question” (Sonderegger 2008, 602). Not only is it questionable whether we need a conception of the good to produce different representations of said concept; the claim concerning the importance of a transcendent image of the good society itself also complicates the distinction between Cooke’s theory and an ethical theory.

Cooke’s proposal does not seem to provide a critical social theory as formulated by the early Frankfurt School. These early critical theorists, highly influenced by Marx, attempted to bring about social change, and aimed at a synthesis of philosophy and the social sciences in order to transform the material conditions of society. However, after hopes for a proletarian revolution faded, it became problematic for critical social theories to determine which social struggles should be theorized. Cooke’s solution for this problem is to start with an idea of the good society and to focus on representations of the good. To do so, it would be necessary to choose a representation of the good life which discloses the conception of the good more powerfully than its rival representations do. This representation, after a comparison with reality, then would bring about the struggles that need attention. At the same time, Sonderegger points out that “it is rather problematic that Cooke’s study cannot properly be called a piece of critical social theory if we apply her own criteria to it. For in the end, Cooke is not interested in developing and advocating a powerful representation of the good society in the light of which specific (new) social affairs might become visible as chains” (Sonderegger 2008, 605). According to Sonderegger, the fact that Cooke does not provide these representations herself, thus creates a “paradox” (Sonderegger 2008, 605). More precisely, Sonderegger argues that Cooke’s book, “taken in isolation, comes close to a continual self-contradiction” (Sonderegger 2008, 602). I would, instead of speaking of a paradox, rather speak of false priorities. Although Cooke values actual critical engagement by advocating powerful representations of the good society, she, like many critical theorists, focuses almost exclusively on the methodological aspects of social critique.

Due to her emphasis on the dilemma between utopian thinking and anti-authoritarianism, Cooke seems to lose the appreciation of the real critical social enterprise: her theory becomes mainly ethical and abstract and does not take concrete social and material aspects into account. At the same time, it must be noted that Cooke shows great awareness of the fact that a disproportionate focus on normative validity risks to lose sight of the praxis of social critique – of the intentional and rational activity that aims for emancipatory change (Cooke 2006, 190). Praxis, for Cooke, remains a “transformative social activity” whose content is not a priori given but should be the outcome of a process of deliberation, and depends on the specific constraints that are posed by particular social arrangements (Cooke 2006, 195).

Thus, representations of the good society point to a discrepancy between the good life and the status quo, thereby providing both normative guidance and ethical direction to social critique. At the same time, we have seen that it is fundamental to Cooke’s approach to conceive both the descriptions of deficiencies in our social arrangements as well as the normative ideas of the good society as “contestable claims” (Cooke 2006, 196). Both, she argues, “are subject to assessment in public processes of inclusive, open-ended, and fair argumentation in a suitably historicist, comparative, and concrete manner” (Cooke 2006, 196). More specifically, Cooke claims that regulative ideas need to self-consciously acknowledge their fictive character to avoid bringing closure to the historical process. It has been shown that for Cooke, these regulative ideas cannot be understood as “blueprints” from which we can immediately implement the transcendent object of the good society into our current social arrangements (Cooke 2006, 176). In other words, by conceptualizing representations of the good society as regulative ideas, Cooke precludes the possibility for any particular idea of the good society to be presented as “unquestionably valid” (Cooke 2006, 176).

For Cooke, the contestability of normative claims and representations means that these claims are subject to processes of deliberation. By focusing on deliberation as a public process of inclusive, open-ended, and fair argumentation, she takes a Habermasian position. This implies that Cooke seeks to combine a praxis of contestation of normative claims with a deliberative process aimed at consensus. Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe have problematized the Habermasian focus on consensus. Cooke takes their criticism very seriously, by paying attention to Laclau’s suspicion concerning “the normative ideal of reconciliation” that informs Habermas’ concept of deliberative democracy (Cooke 2006, 176). For Laclau and Mouffe, the idea of deliberative democracy presupposes the “possibility of a final reconciliation, of […] rational consensus, of a fully inclusive ‘we’” (Laclau & Mouffe 2001, xvii, as cited in Cooke 2006, 176). Laclau takes issue with the idealist assumptions of harmony and reconciliation that seem to guide Habermas’ conception of deliberative democracy (Cooke 2006, 177). Cooke in turn does not shy away from modifying and recasting certain Habermasian concepts to accommodate the force of Laclau’s objection. She finds a good illustration of the kind of revision that is needed to address the idealist assumptions within the projected practices of deliberation in Seyla Benhabib’s work Critique, Norm, and Utopia (1986). In this book,Benhabib argues for “a shift from consensus to conversation” (Cooke 2006, 179). Benhabib’s main concern is that in modern societies, which she conceives of as pluralist and multicultural, agents are likely to hold different attitudes and perspectives that can create conflicting needs and demands that cannot easily be reconciled. Cooke points out that in Benhabib’s account the Habermasian idealized understanding of deliberation processes makes “consensus the arbiter of disputes in matters of moral validity” (Cooke 2006, 181). She argues that Benhabib’s account presents an alternative to the idealist asumptions of many Habermasians, since Benhabib “proposes an ‘interactive’ version which construes moral deliberations as conversations in which the willingness to reason from the other’s point of view is paramount” (Cooke 2006, 181).

Although Cooke finds Benhabib’s model of interactive universalism promising, she points out that this model remains “underdeveloped” (2006, 182). She therefore presents her own understanding of a “regulative idea” as a solution to the problem addressed by Benhabib. Regulative ideas of context-transcending values, she argues, allow for “a picture of a communicative utopia that is vibrant and dynamic, characterized not by harmony and reconciliation but [by] the ongoing contestation of validity claims” (Cooke 2006, 182). Adopting these regulative ideas enables us, according to Cooke, to re-think important concepts in Habermas’s theory of communicative action, such as his account of moral validity. However, this modification does not avoid the fact that Habermas’s communicative utopia remains “harmonistic and reconciliatory” (Cooke 2006, 185). In the following sections, I will therefore argue that the accusations levelled against Habermas – and against Cooke for that matter – by Laclau and other post-structuralist thinkers, demand a more substantive rethinking of the concept of contestation. Rather than focusing on the contestable nature of the validity of moral claims, I make the claim that contestation should be thought of as a political practice focused on the existing articulations of universals, precisely in the name of those universals.

The Need for Universals in Today’s Interconnected World

Cooke’s plea for an account of ethical progress has led her to stress that a radical contextualist approach is too limited to engage in social critique. Her aim is to provide a universalist account of the good life as the underlying principle for social critique. However, she prefers to use the term “context transcending” instead of “universalist” to describe her proposal. In her own terms, this formulation underscores “the importance of the dynamic interpretation of the universality” (Cooke 2006, 20). By interpreting universality as dynamic in the sense that there is “no unmediated and no privileged access to reality or to ethical validity available” (Cooke 2006, 21), Cooke intends to work with the productive tension between the construction of a universalist ground and the commitment to anti-authoritarianism.

In shunning the term universality, Cooke shows great concern for the fact that formulating a conception of the good life – which in its context-transcendent form is a universal one – entails an authoritarian and contra-emancipatory danger. I share this concern, but would rather argue that it is important not to shy away from concepts with universal aspirations. Indeed, as pointed out by James Ingram in his book Radical Cosmopolitics (2013), morality is simply universal, meaning that “all human beings everywhere should count morally” (Ingram 2013, 70). This implies that, when scrutinizing the social structures and arrangements that prevent human beings from flourishing, critical social theory is committed to the egalitarian idea that social change should not just be beneficial to a selected societal group but should include all agents. Ingram addresses Cooke’s concern with universal concepts, arguing that it is possible to criticize the functioning of a universal “on the basis that it violates the values or way of life of a particular individual, group or community” (Ingram 2013, 149). However, a mere commitment to pluralism, according to him, does not take into consideration the degree of the general interconnectedness of the world we find ourselves in (Ingram 2013, 149).

Ingram’s concern with the factual interconnectedness of today’s world is in line with Etienne Balibar’s work on universalism as presented in his article “Ambiguous Universality” (2002), and more recently, in his essay-collection Des Universels (2016). According to Ingram, Balibar conceives universalism primarily as “a fact about the modern world that has grown up over the last few centuries” (Ingram 2013, 150). Ingram summarizes Balibar’s conception vis-à-vis universalism as not being limited to “moral commitment” nor as a simple “formal logic of generalization” (Ingram 2013, 150). His concept of real universality, then, refers to “an actual interdependency between the various ‘units’ which, together, build what we call the world” (2002, 147). This real universality, however, has not always existed. Balibar argues that the world became conceivable as an entity through the actual interdependency of “‘humankind’ as a single web of interrelationships” (Balibar 2002, 149). He emphasizes, however, that this web of interrelations “far from representing a situation of mutual recognition, […] actually coincides with a generalized pattern of conflicts, hierarchies and exclusions” (Balibar 2002, 154-155).

This factual interconnectedness poses a problem for pluralism. In Ingram’s words: “Radical pluralism would amount in practice to generalized laissez-faire – a capitulation to the structures and processes that underlie the grossly unjust relations that now exist, and a way for the powerful and privileged to externalize the costs of their actions while the less powerful bear those costs without recourse or voice” (Ingram 2013, 150). To contest this status quo demands a universalist aim. As I have discussed, these universal aspirations cannot be addressed effectively with reference to a conception of the good life, not even, I would argue, if these positive depictions are fictitious, because of the authoritarian danger of such universals. I therefore want to suggest an alternative route by which I aim to set Cooke’s false priorities aright. Rather than prioritizing abstract ethical reflections over actual critical engagement, I maintain that already articulated universals provide a starting point for actual critical practices as the struggle against their flaws and limitations.

In Des universels, Balibar (2016) points at the fact that the enunciation of the universal is not so much a factor of unification of human beings as a conflict between them and with themselves. Balibar does not only problematize the notion of the universal, he also shows that we can challenge universalisms in the name of their own principles. Judith Butler has brought a something similar to the fore, namely the idea that the universal can be salvaged through the contestation of its existing articulations. We must, according to Butler, resist the idea that it is possible to completely grasp a universal through an articulation of a set of norms or standards. At the same time, Butler does argue that we need universal claims precisely to contest the limits of the existing articulations of universals. She states that “the universal begins to become articulated precisely through challenges to its existing formulation, and the excluded, thereby, constitutes the contingent limit of universalization” (Butler 1996, 48). In other words, the process of universalization entails a critical practice of unmasking the articulated universal as a “false” universal by contesting its limits in the name of the universal. Excluded or marginalized groups could for example deploy the concept of equality to address the exclusionary functioning of the state’s articulation of equality. Such contestations of the limits of the existing articulation in the name of equality render the renewed concept of equality more universal.

Butler’s approach shows the critical potential of contextualism, as she insists that every universal claim is made in a specific context. Within these particular contexts, existing articulations of universals need to be challenged by those who are excluded by these universals – in order to render the articulated universal more universal. The practice of contesting these articulated universals is not based in an abstract representation of the good society that motivates everyone everywhere. As the logic of contestation is bound to particular contexts, the practice of social critique rather requires a bottom-up approach. It must be understood “as a process of universalization rather than as the application of the principle of universality” (Hagen 2014, 49).

Contestation as the Process of Universalizing Universals

The practice of social critique as a process of universalization rejects a universal conception of the good life but holds on to the aspiration of emancipatory change. Processes of universalization subscribe to the possibility of change for the better, not by grounding this emancipatory change in a substantive notion of the universal (the idea of the good society), but by contesting the necessarily partial character of given articulations of universals – with the aim to make them “more” universal. This negativistic approach thus rejects a substantive notion of the universal, as Butler has shown. Instead, a negativistic approach works towards its emancipatory aims by challenging existing understandings of a universal. Cooke engages extensively with both Butler’s negativistic approach to universals and her antiauthoritarian position. She writes that “for Butler the normative and optimistic aspect of critical social thinking consists in the possibilities for expanding the key terms of liberalism, rendering them more inclusive, more dynamic and more concrete” (Cooke 2006, 83). In dealing with Butler’s concerns, Cooke thus comes to argue that Butler does not reject universals straightaway:

In consequence, although any particular articulation of a concept posits an identity that is exclusionary, its exclusions can be revealed by way of practices of critical interrogation that may spark off a creative rearticulation and restaging of the concept. For this reason, Butler does not reject universal concepts such as democracy, freedom, truth or, indeed, the concept of universality itself. What she rejects is the closure of such concepts: static conceptions that refuse to acknowledge their own dependency on particular cultural values, fail to respond to their own constitutive exclusions, and block attempts to rearticulate them in more inclusive and emancipatory ways. Against such static conceptions, she advocates ideas of universality, democracy, freedom, and so on, that are “futural,” “unconstrained by teleology,” and not “commensurate with any of [their] ‘realizations.’” Her concern is to preserve the ideality of such ideals by highlighting the distance between their ideality and the givenness of any of their modes of instantiation. (Cooke 2006, 78)

Without making it explicit, Cooke points to an important formal similarity between her own and Butler’s thought, which seems to mitigate the difference between their negativistic and “more or less determinate” notions of universality. What Cooke herself refers to as the productive tension between the conception of the good and its representations – which, she emphasizes, are constitutively inadequate to grasp their object – could be read in a similar fashion as Butler’s attempt to preserve the gap between the universal and its particular articulations. As Cooke points out, “[i]t is this gap in principle between the ideality of the ideal and its historical actualization that provides a space for the critical transcendence of the given. For Butler, we might say, norms and concepts carry the possibilities for their own transcendence within themselves” (Cooke 2006, 79). These formal similarities notwithstanding, Cooke argues that from her engagement with the question of the representations of the good society, “the question is not just whether there are possibilities for transcendence inherent within the norm or concept; it is whether these possibilities are the basis for the kinds of cognitive and social transformation for which validity in a context-transcending sense can be claimed” (2006, 79-80). By reformulating Butler’s concern into her own terminology, Cooke nevertheless risks to overlook the fact that Butler does account, albeit in a different way, for the validity of social transformations in a context-transcending, that is to say, universalist, manner.

More concretely, Cooke accuses Butler of normative arbitrariness, stating that “[i]n order to speak of progressive, emancipatory revisions, Butler has to allow for a critical perspective that is not confined to any specific frame of intelligibility, but extends across historical epochs and sociocultural contexts. Otherwise, she would be obliged to regard changes in foundational rules as normatively arbitrary” (2006, 80). Simply put, critical theorists, when aiming to bring about change for the better, need to justify “better” within a universal, or context-transcending, perspective. Cooke, like many prominent contemporary critical theorists associated with the Frankfurt School, normatively grounds critical theory’s emancipatory aim, its focus on the betterment of the future, in ideas of historical progress, development, social evolution, and sociocultural learning practices. This idea of historical progress, however, has recently been brought under critical scrutiny by Amy Allen in her book The End of Progress (2016). From a post- and decolonial perspective, Allen rejects a progressive reading of history for being “Eurocentric, imperialist and authoritarian” (Allen 2016, 12). Without subscribing to the idea of historical progress, the social transformations that Butler is referring to do not fall prey to normative arbitrariness. In fact, Cooke’s critique of Butler regarding normative arbitrariness does seem to overlook, or lacks appreciation of, the specific way in which Butler does endorse universals: the social transformations that Butler is referring to are the practices of contestation that render the articulated universals more universal. In other words, the flaws and limitations of the articulated universals can be countered exactly in the name of these universals.

Furthermore, it has been shown that Cooke herself struggles with avoiding the accusation of normative arbitrariness regarding the choice between different representations of the good life. Since Cooke does not intend to develop a regulative idea of the good society that represents its transcendent object, Sonderegger rightfully points out that it remains unclear “which metaphors, stories and pictures” are needed for such a representation (Sonderegger 2008, 605). As Sonderegger argues, “Cooke demands visual disclosures and almost poetic ways of thinking that enable social agents to reconsider as coercion what so far they have experienced as freedom; and yet she refrains from practicing such thinking” (Sonderegger 2008, 605).

As we have seen, Butler does not dismiss universal concepts, but emphasizes the danger of historical closure when the partiality of existing universals is not recognized. According to Cooke, however, Butler connects the problem of closure to “proceduralist as well as substantive accounts of universality” (Cooke 2006, 81). Cooke herself holds that a “more of less substantive” understanding of universals is necessary to account for the ethical direction and motivational force of social critique. She argues that representations of a transcendent object (“the good society”) make ethical orientation possible, and that their power to disclose this transcendent object is needed to motivate critical agents. In order to convincingly claim that Butler’s negativistic approach provides an alternative to Cooke’s substantial understanding of universals, we therefore need to examine whether Butler’s negativistic approach can account for motivational force and ethical direction as well. However, before doing so, the nature of the partiality of the expressed universals needs to be explained, as, according to Butler, critical engagement entails precisely the exposure of this partiality. What accounts for the permanent failure to grasp a universal and how does this shape the actual practice of critique as struggle and contestation?

Cooke argues that for Butler, to universalize universals implies “an open-ended practice of cultural translation” (Cooke 2006, 81). In Butler’s account, “false universals” are the result of cultural difference, meaning that so-called universal norms are in fact always culturally specific. As articulated universals are necessarily encoded in ways that are culturally particular, the universalization of universals implies some kind of “cultural translation” – explained by Ingram as “an endless effort to expose and tentatively bridge the gaps between different cultural idioms in order to prevent the harms that result when one is imposed upon another” (Ingram 2013, 166-167). Instead of going into the difficult question of translation, Ingram criticises Butler’s framing of the problem of false universals in terms of culture, which according to him is “unnecessary and unhelpful” to the emancipatory project (Ingram 2013, 167). Not only are cultures hard to conceptualise –Butler characterizes them as dynamic and anti-essentialist –, Ingram is right to note that a focus on culture leads to a misidentification of the harmful character of false universalisms (Ingram 2013, 169). Ingram illustrates this by pointing to an odd implication of Butler’s approach, namely that “colonialism harms cultures” (Ingram 2013, 169). He responds: “[S]urely the first objection to the imposition of false universals is not that they do not correspond to some group’s culture but rather, more simply, that they are imposed and, by virtue of this fact alone, violate people’s equal freedom and dignity. It is not the misinterpretation that is normatively relevant, but domination” (Ingram 2013, 169).

What does partiality then consist in? Ingram proposes an alternative to a cultural or interpretive interpretation, namely a relational and egalitarian perspective (Ingram 2013, 174). For Butler, this alternative cannot be pursued, since she sees equality as a universal term that is therefore bound to a forever “not yet”. The fact that we cannot successfully articulate the concept of equality leads her to conclude that emancipation consist of nothing more than to keep the concept open to indefinite interpretations. Ingram does agree that a claim to equality can arise from unforeseeable directions and underscores that it is important to remain open to these possibilities (Ingram 2013, 170). We can, however, pose the question of equality without substantializing its corresponding concept – if we focus on actual inequalities. To this end, Ingram heavily relies on the work of sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1998, 1991), whose descriptions of social arrangements are given in terms of domination and powers that prevent equal access to forms of capital. Bourdieu provides Ingram “by simple inversion, with equality as an evaluative standard” (2013, 175). This shift to an egalitarian perspective drastically reformulates the problem of false universalism, since the focus is no longer on different interpretations of universal principles or values – and that some mistranslate others – but rather on an actually existing unequal access to a universal.

I would argue that Ingram’s relational or egalitarian perspective is particularly interesting as an alternative to Cooke’s representations of the good life, as it accounts for both the importance of ethical direction and that of motivational force. Cooke rightly considers these two dimensions to be crucial for the practice of social critique. For Cooke, however, “a more or less determinate guiding idea of the good society” provides both an “ethical reference point” for social critique, as well as a motivational force for agents to engage in this critical enterprise (Cooke 2015, 380). I would argue that the critical social enterprise is conceivable without an idea of the good as well, since the perversions of universals, that is to say, their flaws and limitations, can be countered exactly in the name of these universals. This enables us to engage in immanent critique, crucial for critical social theories, by pointing at the discrepancy between what a concept stands for, and what it produces in actual terms. In an immanent critical practice, universals themselves thus provide ethical direction. To deploy universal concepts within the process of universalization grants these concepts a disruptive and critical character as they can be challenged by anyone who feels excluded by them.

As for the motivational force needed to engage in practices of critique, I would find it hard to believe that abstractly formulated ethical theories have more ethical force than actually felt practices of exclusion. However, exclusions or injustices are not always felt. This is an important consideration for critical social theory in general, and specifically for the practice of universalizing universals, as this practice relies on those who are excluded by the existing articulation of the universal. Indeed, Butler and Balibar help us see cosmopolitanism as a “process of universalization” (Butler 1996, 48) which comes about through contestation, or more precisely, through the struggle and contestation of those who are excluded by universals. In Butler’s terms: “The universal begins to become articulated precisely through challenges to its existing formulation, and this challenge emerges from those who are not covered by it […] but who nevertheless demand that the universal as such ought to be inclusive of them. The excluded, in this sense, constitutes the contingent limit of universalization” (Butler 1996, 48).

Although Butler argues that this process stresses the open-ended nature of the universal, the idea that articulated universals must be challenged by those who are discriminated against, marginalized, and excluded also presents a problem, for it seems to place the burden of social change on the weakest ones in society. Would it not be very idealist to assume that social change can be brought about by the weakest ones? Or, even worse, does a bottom-up understanding of universalizing universals assign a very strong hands-off attitude to the more powerful agents? Possibly, this position is even more idealist than the idea that we can indeed install universal values top-down. A genuine concern with authoritarian danger would in that case lead to an implicit acceptance of the status quo. I would argue, however, that a passive waiting for others to demand change is not the right interpretation of Butler’s forever “not yet”. To substantiate this claim, I will further elaborate on the actual practice of contestation in the final section, by asking not only how to engage in practices of social critique, but also who these critical actors are.

Anti-Authoritarian Practices of Critique: Who are the Emancipatory Agents?

The commitment to pursue social critique through a process of universalization does restrain us from speaking for others, or in the name of others. It has been emphasized that the limits of articulated universals can be overcome through actual struggles in which affected agents contest exclusion and hierarchization. However, this is not to say “we” can sit back and wait for social change to come about. First of all, it is hard to envisage to whom this “we” refers. Domination, marginalization, and inequality should not be seen as excesses that affect just a small minority in an otherwise good or just society. We have seen that Bourdieu’s description of social arrangements in terms of power and domination points into the same direction. Bourdieu’s perspective sits well with Balibar’s diagnosis of “real universality” that depicts the web of interrelationships as characterized by conflicts, hierarchies, and exclusions (Balibar 2002, 154). However, it is important to see that these inequalities are often hidden, which poses a problem for actual engagements in practices of critique. Bourdieu speaks in this regard of symbolic violence, referring to the system of social arrangements and relations whose asymmetrical character is not recognized by the dominated nor by the dominant. It could be argued that this points exactly to the task of critical theory: to disclose the perceived necessity of social structures by unmasking their claims to naturality, objectivity, or neutrality. Many critical theorists, then, argue that agents must be made aware of the conditions and determinants underlying their position, showing that they would have never subscribed to these circumstances in a free and uncoercive situation (Geuss 1981, 65).

Thus, not only are agents often unaware of inequality, forms of (symbolic) domination might also cause them to shape and adapt their needs and preferences. In response, critical theorists have argued that “agents who suffer from ideologically false consciousness are deluded about their own true interests and needs” (Geuss 1981, 45). Critical social theory, therefore, is supposed to enlighten agents as to their true needs and interests. However, a focus of critical social theory on distinguishing between better and worse interpretations of people’s needs, will – again – lead to authoritarian problems and does no justice to the bottom-up, radical approach of processes of universalization. Moreover, it assumes a wrong conception of the nature of needs, as no one can rightfully claim the authority to “rationally” decide upon the right interpretation of needs. Robin Celikates has pointed out that it is precisely the nature of needs that they are “rarely self-evident and beyond dispute” (Celikates 2011a, 9). In fact, in most cases, needs are “politically contestable and contested” (Celikates 2011a, 9). Therefore, Celikates suggests that needs should be considered as outputs of political and social struggles: through these struggles, agents determine what counts as a “true” need rather than a “mere” preference or desire, thereby deciding what the legitimate interpretations of individual needs are (2011a, 9).

This characterization stresses the importance for agents to contest the nature of needs as part of their self-realization. Moreover, the struggle over needs specifies, according to Celikates, a particular kind of recognition, namely “recognition as a legitimate party of a conflict” (2011a, 10). Thus, struggles over defining needs and over the acknowledgment of these needs cannot take place without perceiving agents “as a potential source of reasons and valid claims” that need to be taken into consideration (Celikates 2011a, 11). Furthermore, this specific kind of recognition should be distinguished from forms of recognition that consist of the “individual’s specific properties, needs, and achievements” (Celikates 2011a, 10). By acknowledging this distinction between two forms of recognition, no further substantial conception of the good life is needs to be invoked, since recognition as a legitimate party of conflict can both be understood in a rather formal and negativistic way, and as a critique of the structural restrictions of actors’ capacities to engage in normative conflicts (Celikates 2011b, 169).

To conclude, I have argued against the need for a metaphysical notion of the good life to guide and inspire our critical practices. Given critical theory’s commitment to anti-authoritarianism, such a concept of the good life could only exist as an abstract ethical reflection in the form of a representation which can never completely grasp the good life. This approach, which is proposed by Cooke, risks moving away from the actual practice of social critique. In contrast, I have argued that critical theory must move beyond abstract reflections concerning the good society and should develop a radical, bottom-up approach which focuses on actual social and political struggles. Although this approach rejects an abstract ethical conception of the good life, this does not mean that all concepts with universal aspirations should be dismissed. As has been pointed out through the work of Balibar, the general interconnectedness of the world demands universalist aims in social struggles. However, this universal aspiration cannot be addressed effectively by referring to a conception of the good life – not even if these positive depictions are fictitious – without falling prey to problems of authoritarianism. I have suggested an alternative route, arguing that articulated universals can provide a starting point for actual critical practices, namely as a struggle against their flaws and limitations. These struggles show that although universals cannot be captured by any set of norms or institutions, this does not preclude the possibility to make universal claims. Rather, the unequal access to a universal can be contested through universal claims. Struggles against unequal access, and therefore by simple inversion, for equal inclusion, could be reformulated as the struggle for the possibility to take part in conflicts about needs. In order to work towards these forms of equal inclusion, the dominant discourse has to be rearticulated by revealing practices and social structures that exclude and block groups and individuals from being recognized as political agents. However, I hope to have shown that this requires an understanding of universal concepts as being open and contingent, so as not to foreclose the possibility for their contestation from unforeseeable directions. Indeed, the outcome of a struggle to universalize universals is always open-ended, precisely because the true needs and preferences of agents cannot be decided by critical theorists. Critical theory should therefore remain sensitive to the claims for inclusion and forms of contestation of those who are denied a political voice. In other words, a critical practice demands an endorsement of, and support for, marginalized agents who need recognition to be part of the conflict about their needs.

The Archipolitics of Jacques Rancière

The formation of the philosophical and political thought of Jacques Rancière was decisively marked by the experience of his initiation into political theory as Louis Althusser’s student and by his participation in the writing of Reading Capital (1965). Rancière’s subsequent political theory, the “student’s” criticism of his “teacher,” marked the radical departure of an entire generation from Marxism of the Althusserian type (cf. Rancière 1974; 1975). At the same time as he advanced his criticism of Althusser’s scholarly pedagogy and the politics of knowledge in general (e.g. Bourdieu’s sociology), Rancière extensively discussed what he called “rejuvenated political philosophy” (Rancière 2002, viii). The term refers to a rather heterogeneous group of French nouveaux philosophes who in the 1970s and 1980s were strongly oriented towards Plato and Aristotle: André Glucksmann, Alain Finkielkraut, Pascal Bruckner, Bernard-Henri Lévy, Jean-Marie Benoist, Christian Jambet, Guy Lardreau, and Jean-Paul Dollé (cf. Negt 1983, 57). For Rancière, the new political philosophy is not a “subgenre” or an “area” of philosophy, not a “reflection of immanent rationality of political activity” (Rancière 2010c, 96); it is, in fact, “the name of an encounter – and a polemical encounter at that – in which the paradox or scandal of politics is exposed: its lack of any proper foundation” (Rancière 2002, 61). Here, Rancière demonstrates his disagreement with the foundational idea that politics proceeds as an enactment or materialization of some external or eternal “grounds” (truth, nature, etc.). Regarding the invisible “grounds” or foundations of political philosophy, in what follows I examine his critique of Hannah Arendt, whom he considers a proponent of political philosophy in general and a forerunner of French new political philosophers in particular (similarly, Badiou calls them “Hannah Arendt’s disciples,” Badiou 2003, 8). Contrary to general assumptions and contrary to Rancière’s own insistence on the irreconcilable differences between them, Hannah Arendt’s name represents for his political thinking a theoretical forerunner that precedes his own work and even anticipates its critique. Following on the heels of this claim, I suggest reading Hannah Arendt and Jacques Rancière as representative of two different anarchisms. They meet on opposite sides of a common rotational axis, which has the arché as its anarchist core notion: on one side is the pathos of the an-archic as the new and unforeseen element of event or even revolution; on the other is the anarchist rejection of any genealogy, tradition, and authority as the leading principles of the political. Here, if Rancière’s ambivalent relation to Arendt is characterized by strategic positioning and attacks that are carried out in disguise, in footnotes and allusions, then reading these subtexts makes it necessary to unpack his references for the sake of positioning him in the direction of a different theoretical context and a different understanding of an-archic politics.

A Symptomatic Reading

Both Arendt and Rancière are theoreticians for whom it is almost impossible, as Arendt similarly asserts of Duns Scotus, to find “a comfortable niche between predecessors and successors in the history of ideas” (Arendt 1978, 133). Rancière’s hybrid position, blending Marxism, post-Marxism and anarchism, German liberal-philosophical heritage and the French Maoist experience, has already led to interpretations that observe him in a contrapuntal relation to his predecessors (cf. Badiou 2005, 108). Due to his unusual encounter with German philosophy (primarily with Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Schiller), he occupies a unique place within the context of (French) post-post-structuralist theories (Hartle 2009, 241). Concurring with this is his critical but nonetheless ambivalent stance towards Hannah Arendt: although he sees in Arendt a typical follower of the tradition of liberal political philosophy, certain common traits he shares with her cannot be ignored. Is it possible, then, that Rancière, who heated up the particularist nature of postmodern micropolitical emancipatory thinking and passed from the area of social, interest-oriented identity politics to the level of the “actual” political, purposefully antagonizes Arendt, who formulated this criticism long before him and possibly more radically (cf. Mengue 2009, 186)? Taking this suspicion as the point of departure, the reading of Rancière’s texts ventured here illuminates the implicit or unconsidered interrelations between him and Hannah Arendt. That said, in the same way that Slavoj Žižek discovers in Rancière an “anti-Lyotardian Lyotard” (Žižek 1999, 172), I interpret him as an anti-Arendtian Arendtian.

As the intersection and contact points between Rancière and Arendt are revealed only after a detailed – one could say “symptomatic” – reading, analyses of this kind are still rare and vague. Here, Katrin Meyer notes that “Arendt’s critique of the (homogenized) notion of people, of the anti-political decision making by the majority and the plebiscite […] is clearly comparable to Rancière’s […] diagnosis of post-democracy” (Meyer 2011, 30). In his book on the “insurgent democracy,” conceived along the lines of Karl Marx’s Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1843), Miguel Abensour notes that “only Jacques Rancière seems to preserve Marx’s intuition as to the being, as to the anti-statist disposition, of democracy” (Abensour 2011, xxxiv), while just a few pages later he interprets this anti-statist disposition as “action in the Arendtian sense of the term” (Abensour 2011, xli).1 And Andrew Schaap assumes that Rancière could be a closet Arendtian (Schaap 2011, 37).

In his essay “The Subject of the Politics of Recognition: Hannah Arendt and Jacques Rancière,” James Ingram stresses that with his understanding of politics, similarly to Arendt, Rancière counteracts the minimization of politics and its relegation to economic spheres of interests and competition (Ingram 2007, 236). Like Arendt, he demands that democracy be actively lived and profiled precisely in opposition to the “collapsing of the political, the sociological and the economic into one plane” (Rancière 2006, 20). It seems that, notwithstanding Rancière’s insistence on the irreconcilable differences between himself and Arendt, for Rancière’s political thinking Arendt represents a theoretical forerunner that precedes his own work and even anticipates its critique.

Indeed, in the same way Althusser’s spirit still unmistakably haunts his texts, Rancière never managed to escape his adversary Arendt. Throughout his works one finds several rather non-systematic remarks on Arendt which could almost all be summarized in a short paragraph. Arendt’s name first appears in On the Shores of Politics (1990/1995). There he disputes the legitimacy of her adoption of Aristotle’s division between poiesis and praxis. Without indulging in an in-depth reading of Aristotle’s legacy in Arendt in any of these instances, Rancière mentions her name as a generally valid example of the continuation of political philosophy, so that when speaking of ancient political philosophers, he introduces her name by means of a “for example” or “and so on.” As for Arendt’s central notion of vita activa, he uses this term as a negative foil to which his vita democratica is juxtaposed: “This is what I should like to demonstrate by examining some aspects of what I shall call vita democratica – rather as Hannah Arendt speaks of the vita activa. I shall deal with just two such aspects in what follows: the use of words and the use of forms” (Rancière 1995, 45). Interestingly, this quotation, taken from the very end of the chapter “The Reign of the Many,” refers to Hannah Arendt by way of a disambiguation but does not give an exact explanation as to why Rancière’s notion of vita democratica should be detached from Arendt’s notion of vita activa.

Five years later, in his political and theoretical masterwork – Disagreement: politics and philosophy (1995/2002) – Arendt’s name is only rarely mentioned. However, a critique of political philosophy, as formulated in Disagreement, is later exemplified precisely using Arendt’s attempt to detach social problems from politics, which is purportedly based on the “natural” distinction between the rich and the poor. If in Disagreement one reads that “[t]he struggle between the rich and the poor is not social reality, which politics then has to deal with” but that this struggle “is the actual institution of politics itself” (Rancière 2002, 11), then in Aesthetics and Its Discontents (2004/2009) Rancière directly treats Hannah Arendt as an advocate of this “natural” distinction. There, he uses her name as representative of political purism and the philosophy of consensus: “Arendt’s political purism, which ventured to separate political freedom from social necessity, becomes a legitimation of the necessities of the consensual order” (Rancière 2009, 131).2

The contact zones between Arendt and Rancière have been summarized by Andrew Schaap in his essay “Hannah Arendt and the Philosophical Repression of Politics”(2012). Firstly, both Arendt and Rancière argue for a politics that overcomes determination through the purely social (economics, competition, life sustainment). Secondly, Arendt’s understanding of arché displays some elements of an-archic politics related to those of Rancière, although he strives to correct her. And thirdly, her understanding of politics as a creation of a common world is compliant with (rather than opposed to) Rancière’s own world-disclosing understanding of politics, which is defined as the public appearance of the hitherto invisible, unrecognized voices, bodies, and subjects (cf. also Schaap 2010, 167). Schaap’s conclusion is that “[i]n each case, an Arendtian might suspect, Rancière has actually (albeit, perhaps unintentionally) taken a concept from Arendt and twisted it to suit his purpose” (Schaap 2012, 161). Nevertheless, Schaap concurs with Rancière’s rejection of Arendt, claiming that “the disagreement that Rancière seeks to establish between himself and Arendt is real and profound” (Schaap 2011, 38). The differences consist, firstly, in Arendt’s ontological understanding of politics, which is opposed to Rancière’s dealing with the political as a process (ibid., 38); secondly, in Arendt’s understanding of the human as a speaking animal, whereas Rancière sees the human as a literary animal (ibid., 36); and, thirdly, in Rancière’s critique of the political-philosophical anthropocentrism, to which Arendt still professes (ibid., 36). In the present study, although Schaap approves of Rancière’s critical position towards Arendt, I claim that the fine distinctions are indeed based on a “disagreement that Rancière seeks to establish between himself and Arendt” (ibid., 38, italics I.P.) rather than on profound differences. Here, I incline more to the inference by James D. Ingram, namely that “Rancière can be read as emending rather than rejecting Arendtian politics” (Ingram 2007, 237).

The Dichotomies

Ernst Vollrath once remarked that in modern history the “old wisdom” had turned into the “ability of an individual to successfully conduct his/her life” (Vollrath 1987, 239-240) and that philosophy itself had experienced a centuries-long privatization process, which he calls the “privatization of prudentia” (ibid., 244). Rancière counters a history of modern times written in this way with the warning that (political) philosophy has never been able to bridge the gap between thinking (theoria, contemplatio) and the common, political world. If in its origins within antiquity it provided nothing but normative interpretations – Plato and Aristotle drew a normative differentiation between those who think and act and those who “merely” produce and work –, the political philosophy of the twentieth century continued to distinguish between “man and animal” in a way that this distinction “runs right through the human species itself: only the best (aristoi) […] are really human; the others, content with whatever pleasures nature will yield them, live and die like animals” (Arendt 1998, 21).

Despite Rancière’s attribution of Arendt’s thought to precisely this infamous tradition, Arendt does not invoke the ancient origins of political philosophy in order to upgrade the contemplative and detached science of political rule but in order to underscore “man’s faculty of action” (ibid.). Here, consider her encompassing claim that although “no other human ability has suffered to such an extent from the progress of the modern age” (ibid.) and that not even the modern “rise of the secular” could outdo the “striving for immortality which originally had been the spring and center of the vita activa” (ibid.). Moreover, although she developed political theory as a critique of merely contemplative political philosophy, it is telling that with her path-breaking, elaborate, and voluminous correction of the political deficiency of modern times Arendt did not simply reject vita contemplativa, much vaunted since the Middle Ages, but that her political theory, in fact, enhanced political thought by adding to it the dimension of vita activa (ibid., 17).

Rancière’s central target in his critique of Arendt is her hierarchical distinction between shadow and light, the private and the public, the social and the political, contemplation and action. He stages the dispute with Arendt and political philosophy as “a struggle over the distribution of public and private, of what is political and what is not” (Rancière 2010a, 54). If Arendt’s notion of beginning – which in the realm of politics embodies the idea of a radically an-archic birth (Birmingham 2007, 277) and thus cannot be reduced to any principium3–necessarily has a public character, Rancière is interested in questioning the very semantic and political regime (the “order of words and the order of bodies,” Rancière 2002, 37) that constitutes the distinction between the “public” and the “private” as hierarchical in the first place. Such a deconstructive gesture informs On the Shores of Politics. Here, he supplements Arendt’s claim that the primary human right consists in “the right to have rights” (Rancière 1995, 50) with the following comment: “We might add that rights are held by those who can impose a rational obligation on the other to recognize them”(ibid.).

However, Rancière proceeds in a simpler manner than is required by Arendt’s complex conceptualizations. He confuses two related but decisively different levels of her analysis. Rancière – a supposed “careful reader of Arendt” (Schaap 2012, 156) – confounds her epistemological dichotomy of the private and the public with her political-theoretical separation of the social and the political. For a disambiguation of these two dichotomies, consider Hannes Bajohr’s pertinent differentiation between the epistemological (the prominent position of coming to light and of world disclosure) and the political dimension (execution of the break, dissent, disagreement, and beginning) of Arendt’s work (Bajohr 2011, 29-31). Bajohr asserts that “publicity” in Arendt essentially encompasses two aspects of meaning which can be observed independently; concomitantly, they “unveil the entire semantic content of Arendt’s publicity concept only in their interplay and combined effect” (ibid., 27). It is important to remark that unlike epistemological publicity, and still in close correlation to Martin Heidegger’s notion of disclosedness, a disclosedness that is not spatially bound, Arendt’s ideal of political publicity is able to “avert the elusiveness of the spontaneously emerging [publicity] and continuously ensure the ‘space of freedom’” (ibid., 66, italics I.P.).

Furthermore, Rancière omits to specify the exact meaning of the “social” in Arendt. Instead of reading it as a critique of commercialized assujettissement and identification of human beings according to the anti-political models of state or economy, he attacks her attempt to save political action from the encroachments of the “social.” Departing from the claim that the “opposition between the ‘political’ and the ‘social’ is a matter defined entirely within the frame of ‘political philosophy’” (Rancière 2001, Thesis 9), which would amount to “the philosophical repression of politics” (ibid.), he draws a rather simple conclusion: in his reading, Arendt advocates with her repudiation of the “social” a removal of private matters from the political sphere; consequently, she neglects the fact that “political figures […] are always entangled in social figures” (Rancière 2010c, 90). For this, consider a more profound disambiguation proposed by Simona Forti. Taking Noberto Bobbio’s differentiation between two dichotomies within what he calls the “great dichotomy” of the private and the public, Simona Forti remarks that for Arendt the “social” represents the realm where the confusion of the private and public takes place, where “pubblicizzazione del privato e la privatizzazione del pubblico” (Forti 2006, 291; cf. Bobbio 1989; also Pitkin 1981, 334) are underway. The dichotomy of the private and public helps Arendt, in fact, to interpret the “social” as an anti-political blending. The actual juxtaposition, which Arendt wants to reinforce normatively – and this is thoroughly ignored by Rancière – is the one between social passivity and interest-oriented conformism (which are anti-political) on the one hand, and free, unimpeded, and therefore unpredictable action (which is only political) on the other.

As regards his insistence on the dynamics of politicization and Arendt’s assumed ontological understanding of politics as plurality (Schaap 2011, 38), Rancière reads Arendt as if she conformed with the ancient tendency to “identify political activity with the police order” (Rancière 2002, 70) and thus delegated political practice from the people to professional politicians, “experts” in politics. In Rancière’s reading, when isolating “a short extract from the speech made by Pericles in Thucydides” she “set[s] up an exemplary political stage where peers (homoioi) distinguish themselves by making the fine speeches and performing the fine deeds that confer a brilliant immortality upon the precariousness of human actions” (Rancière 1995, 68). This identification of Arendt’s political thought with the police order of ancient political philosophy is neither precise nor correct. In her critique of “the social,” Arendt does not vindicate the consensual politics of the state against the emancipatory demands on the part of society but, similarly to Rancière, critically observes what he recognizes as the aforementioned “collapsing of the political, the sociological and the economic into one plane” (Rancière 2006, 20). The result of this is the interference of the logic of profit, interests, and competition in politics and thus the privatization of politics. Arendt’s concern for politics, therefore, is oriented towards politicization of this privatized state, i.e., towards action as intervention in the enduring logics of mere “behavior” as typical of modern society, which imposes “innumerable and various rules, all of which tend to “normalize” its members, to make them behave, to exclude spontaneous action or outstanding achievement” (Arendt 1998, 40). This necessity of politicization also features the outstanding historical moments of revolutions as soon as these begin to channel the political process towards normalization of hierarchical, apolitical relations between the leaders and the led, thus enforcing a “cleavage between the party experts who “knew” and the mass of the people who were supposed to apply this knowledge” (Arendt 1963, 264). Although this concern in fact complements Rancière’s primary question, “where do you draw the line separating one life from the other?” (Rancière 2004b, 303), Rancière seeks to detach himself from Arendt in order to highlight his own, substantially different, understanding of the core of politics, i.e., of its arché. Before coming to the notion of arché that serves as a differentia specifica of their theoretical edifices, I will first consider how the disagreement between a foundational view of politics on the one hand (Arendt’s appreciation of politics as the realization of specific human potential for action) and a post-foundational view on the other (Rancière’s renunciation of a pre-political human nature and reorientation of politics towards demonstration of a dissensus over the very grounds of politics) structures their understanding of human rights.

In Rancière and Arendt’s common opinion, the modern idea of human rights functions as ideology because it exhausts itself in the reduction of men to mere objects of politics instead of establishing their (self-)empowerment as political agents. Rancière interprets this as privatization which simultaneously succeeds on two levels. The ideology of human rights firstly operates as “an explicit form that denies political rights to certain parts of the population on sexual, social or ethnic grounds” (bio-political or archipolitical level, Rancière 2010a, 57). Secondly, it entails “an implicit form that restricts the sphere of citizenship to a definite set of institutions, problems, agents and procedures” (the parapolitical level; ibid.). He relates the human-rights ideology to the founding story of the polis, to that ideal-historical moment in which individual groups of people are assigned tasks in accordance with their supposed “nature.” According to Rancière, political subjectification is precisely a reaction to this “natural order”; it is a “product of the […] multiple fracture lines by which individuals and networks of individuals subjectify the gap between their condition as animals endowed with a voice and the violent encounter with the equality of the logos” (Rancière 2002, 37). Here, Schaap highlights an important distinctive trait in Rancière: in contrast to Arendt, who identifies the human as a speaking animal, Rancière insists that the human is a literary animal (Rancière 2002, 37), meaning that political subjectification necessarily implies “an excess of words” (Schaap 2011, 36). Schaap’s point of distinction appears convincing but “an Arendtian” (Schaap 2012, 161) might, again, suspect that this confrontation proceeds at the cost of Arendt’s own distinction between the mere potential of politics and politics as action. Although in her seminal political-theoretical works The Human Condition (1958), On Revolution (1963), and On Violence (1969) Arendt does not venture a distinct designation, in her late The Life of the Mind (1978) she insists on the deficiency of the mere capability of speech in contrast to actual communication. In her perspective, the mere availability of the language asset – anchored in the sensus communis as a “specifically human sense” (Arendt 1978, 268) – does not straightforwardly imply or lead to its political use. In order to make this asset accountable, one has to enact it through actual communication, which one necessarily does as a member of a community, as part of a “we” (ibid., 202): “and it is only as a member of such a unit, that is, of a community, that men are ready for action” (ibid.).

Another major difference put forward by Schaap regards Arendt’s anthropocentric understanding of politics and Rancière’s own critique of anthropocentrism. The Rancièrean project of democratic politics does not consist in the unification of people under a certain universal name or common denominator (craftsmen, proletarians, women, etc.); instead, the political is contained in the renouncing of this police classification (May 2010, 12). In this regard, I agree with Schaap’s conclusion that Rancière’s view of politics is processual and dissensual, whereas Arendt’s is rather ontological. Indeed, the greatest point of disagreement between Arendt’s and Rancière’s theoretical positions arises from the following: if politics for Arendt is primarily a world-disclosing, revealing activity that actualizes the true political potential of men, for Rancière – who also emphasizes its world-disclosing dimension – it is first and foremost a “litigious name” (Schaap 2011, 23). As such, politics is not; it only “occurs wherever a community with the capacity to argue and to make metaphors is likely, at any time and through anyone’s intervention, to crop up” (Rancière 2002, 60, italics I.P.). Thus, Rancière highlights the eminently disputable nature of being political. Whereas Arendt uses the category “human” in normative relation to all human beings (thus inevitably neglecting the fact that not everyone can enact his/her own humanity in the same way), Rancière problematizes the disreputable distinction between man and animal within the very realm of the political (human) community. “But the whole question, then, is to know who possesses speech and who merely possesses voice” (Rancière 2009, 24). However, although he complicates the classic distinction between man and animal, and notwithstanding his critique of anthropocentrism as present in the tradition of political philosophy, even in Rancière the litigious political act of renouncing the imposed identities takes place in the name of the human. The anthropocentric kernel in Rancière’s thought is conspicuous, all the more so if one considers that Rancière introduced the category of the human in the still post-structuralist 1990s, that is, at a time when the hesitant questions as to “what comes after the subject” were constitutive of the theoretical establishment (cf., for instance, Nancy, Cadava, and Connor 1991).

To recapitulate, with the post-structuralist experience in mind, Rancière still adheres to a certain anthropocentrism, but he places the human differently than Arendt did: it is not a universal category that in modern times becomes alienated, degraded, or privatized, but a matter of political dispute, the very place of political articulation itself. Therefore, Rancière’s emending of traditional (Arendtian) anthropocentrism is not a critique but a variation, indeed a translation of the traditional problem into terminology established by the linguistic turn, which is interested in “the use of words and the use of forms” (Rancière 1995, 45).

The Foundations of Politics: Arché

When Rousseau asserts that the actual founder of civil society was “[t]he first man, who, after enclosing a piece of ground, took it into his head to say, ‘This is mine,’ and found people simple enough to believe him” (Rousseau 2007, 59), one can add, along the lines of Rancière’s thinking, that civil society draws its eternal power from the naturalization of this archipolitical lie. Moreover, the very modern version of democracy, whose “political figures […] are always entangled in social figures” (Rancière 2010c, 90), is guilty of the same crime. Rancière maintains that the naturalization of this lie has been the task of political philosophy: “At the head of the anodyne expression ‘political philosophy’ one finds the violent encounter between philosophy and the exception to the law of arche proper to politics, along with philosophy’s effort to resituate politics under the auspices of this law” (Rancière 2001, Thesis 9).

In its original meaning, arché is polysemic: it means both “origin” and “principle” through which authority is legitimated, both “commencement” and “commandment” (Rancière 2006, 38):4Arkhè is the commandment of he who commences, of what comes first” (ibid.). Although Rancière does not necessarily imply this (he begins the paragraph only by saying, “As Hannah Arendt reminded us,” ibid.), Arendt seems to approve of this amalgamation of “commencement” and “commandment” when she somewhat uncritically introduces Plato’s dictum that “only the beginning (arche) is entitled to rule (archein)” (Arendt 1998, 224).5 Similarly, she suggests that the “experience of foundation” (Arendt 1963, 41) is tightly connected with the history of revolutions, that “revolution on the one hand, and constitution and foundation on the other, are like correlative conjunctions” (ibid., 126). This correlation is, in fact, “conservative” rather than “revolutionary” (ibid., 41), she adds. In her account, the conservative character of the revolutionary founding act is nevertheless justified only to the extent that it points to the striving that the “‘revolutionary’ spirit could survive the actual end of the revolution” (ibid., 126). It points to the demand “to assure the survival of the spirit out of which the act of foundation sprang” (ibid., 126).6 But the preservation of the founding spirit is political only if it is upheld by many: “A model of sovereignty that would rely on only one absolute, that is, solitary agent would from [Arendt’s] perspective mean not the constitution but the death of the political” (Meyer 2011, 28). Upon closer inspection, it would therefore be false to assume that with the seemingly affirmative reference to Plato Arendt legitimized the assumption that the founding act alone provides the right to rule.

In Ten Theses on Politics (2001), Rancière focuses on Arendt’s “vertiginous short-cut” (Rancière 2001, Thesis 2) of equating beginning, ruling, being free, and living in a city state, that is, of her understanding of freedom as life within a politically defined framework. Later, in “Who Is the Subject of the Rights of Man?”(2004), he supplements this critique as follows: the claim that “[t]o be free and to live in a polis is the same thing” (Rancière 2001, Thesis 2) confers human rights only to those in possession of citizen’s rights. Arendt’s understanding of bare life as the state of radical abolishment of the political leads to an invocation to restitute the borders, which consequently effects the exclusion of those who remain outside of the borders (Rancière 2004b, 301). Such a reading suggests that Arendt actively endorses the exclusive archipolitics as inherent to the traditional understanding of democracy, which is exemplified by her presumably shortsighted critique of human rights: “Either the rights of those who have no rights or the rights of those who have rights. Either a void or a tautology, and, in both cases, a deceptive trick, such is the lock that she builds” (ibid., 302). However, the “vertiginous short-cut” is Rancière’s trick rather than Arendt’s lapse. When he concludes that Arendt’s critique of the emptiness of human rights ends in a tautology (“they are the rights of those who have rights, which amounts to a tautology,” ibid.), the supplement provided by Rancière only translates, again, the Arendtian account of human rights into the two-leveled disambiguation of the category of man between the “order of words” and “the order of bodies”:

[S]uch is the lock that she builds. It works out only at the cost of sweeping aside the third assumption that would escape the quandary. There is indeed a third assumption, which I would put as follows: the Rights of Man are the rights of those who have not the rights that they have and have the rights that they have not (ibid.).

Contrary to an alleged interest in tautologies, Arendt’s criticism of the Rights of Man is not exhausted by a rhetorical interest in, as in Rancière, “the use of words and the use of forms” (Rancière 1995, 45), but culminates in advocating institutional politics that would ensure the practice of freedom. Indeed, then, “[t]o be free and to live in a polis” amounts to “the same thing” (Rancière 2001, Thesis 2): however, Arendt enforces archipolitics for the sake of inclusion and not exclusion, and with the aim of an extension of the polis, and not the conservation of existing borders.

That said, the model of polis advocated by Arendt is not one of the socially stratified “Fortress Europe” or related post-democratic reinventions of the modern idea of the sovereign state. Instead, departing from the ancient idea of isonomia (meaning “no rule,” Ingram 2007, 234), Arendt designs a normative ideal that relinquishes the differentiation between rulers and subjects. “This notion of no-rule was expressed by the concept of isonomy, whose outstanding characteristic among the forms of government […] was that the notion of rule (the “archy” from αρχειν in monarchy and oligarchy, or the “cracy” from κρατειν in democracy) was entirely absent from it” (Arendt 1963, 30). Notwithstanding the implied extension of isonomy towards the many, at this point Rancière’s remark on the parapolitical character inherent to this model of political action, which necessarily enables politics only within secured spaces – councils of the polis or the political sphere of a legally effective state – proves most relevant indeed. The ideal of isonomy unambiguously presents a weak point in Arendt’s theoretical construction, as long as some pertinent questions are left unanswered, for instance: How can that which is declared politically unworthy (through laws or their absence) become political and change the existing order of the political? How, i.e., by means of which acts, interventions, or procedures can freedom of the few result in “freedom for everybody” (“Freiheit für alle,” Arendt 1965, 10)? As agonal readings of Dana Villa, Bonnie Honig, and Hanna Pitkin have shown, this is possible only under the substantial dynamization of Arendt’s dichotomies of zoé and bios, of the social and political, private and public (Villa 1997; Honig 1991 and 1995; Pitkin 1981). As regards the first question, Rancière’s insistence on politics as a process undoubtedly has more to offer for contemporary questions of political subjectification of that “part of those who have no part” (Rancière 2002, 65). But when it comes to Rancière’s own attempts to define more precise modalities of upholding the newly established polity, his argumentation delimits itself to advocating an unforeseeable event. It is precisely here that Rancière’s and Arendt’s initial positions coincide in their mutual predilection for the events of political subjectification, “disruption” (Rancière 2002, 70), or revolution, which in both accounts assumes the category of “miracle” (Arendt 2005, 112). Arché takes place “whenever something new occurs, [when] it bursts into the context of predictable processes as something unexpected, unpredictable, and ultimately causally inexplicable – just like a miracle” (Arendt 2005, 111-112); “Politics occurs wherever a community with the capacity to argue and to make metaphors is likely, at any time and through anyone’s intervention, to crop up” (Rancière 2002, 60). Simultaneously, Arendt supplements this necessity of a secular miracle with the insistence on institutional – archipolitical – instruments that ensure the continuation of the revolutionary spirit. She endorses this position because in the face of the annihilation of human freedom by totalitarian, inhuman politics, freedom ought to outlive the moment of disruption. Contrary to Rancière’s interpretation of her inclination towards institutions, founding acts, passing laws, and constitutive consensus in terms of a marker of a liberal perspective and an “archipolitical position” (Rancière 2004b, 299), in Arendt’s account the institution vouchsafes the possibility of new beginnings as a fundamental political principle: therein and only therein lies its “conservative” (Arendt 1963, 41) character. The conservative trait of institutionalization is tied to the revolutionary spirit that engendered the change in the first place. Moreover, the institutional correspondence to the spirit of the beginning not only preserves but also questions the revolutionary achievements (ibid., 232). In this context, Bonnie Honig interprets Arendt’s understanding of revolutionary authority as a “practice of authority [that] turns out to be, paradoxically enough, a practice of deauthorization” (Honig 1991, 111). If this principle of authority enables the upholding of revolutionary spirit, it can do so only by questioning the actual fundamentals of authority, institution, and revolution.

Conclusion: Revolutionary vs. Evolutionary Anarchism

On the basis of these considerations of authority and institution, I propose an Arendtian-Rancièrean notion of limited institution: on the one hand, it enables the sustainment of disruptive democratic events and enactments of freedom (“the act of its own verification, which is forever in need of reiteration,” Rancière 1995, 84); on the other, it fulfills the demand that “the community of equals […] never achieve[s] substantial form as a social institution” (ibid.). The limited institution need not be understood as a reconciliatory “third-way,” a theoretical middle path between the two thinkers, but as a type of institutional praxis that prevents the risks of both the archipolitical derailment of institutionalization and anti-institutional “radical passivity” (Wall 1999) inherent in a number of post-foundational political-theoretical projects.

Rancière’s paradoxical insistence on the political praxis that refrains from establishing social institutions must primarily be viewed as a correction of the purported Marxist and psychoanalytical understanding of revolution as a “simple upheaval of the forms of state” (Rancière 2009, 99). He speaks about a “revolution that is no mere displacement of powers, but a neutralization of the very forms by which power is exercised, overturning other powers and having themselves overturned” (ibid.). If the event of arché is necessarily based on exclusion, which Laclau recognizes as indispensable for all acts of emancipation,7 Rancière proposes a weakened – even evolutionary – understanding of emancipation as it was often advocated by anarchist and social democratic corrections of Marxist revolutionary theory and praxis.8 His correction of classic revolutionary theory goes hand in hand with the post-Marxist demise of the old revolutionary models and the rethinking of politics in terms of “the political” (Bedorf and Röttgers 2010). Therefore, it is with a view to the demise of historical revolutions that Rancière’s democratic project of “redisposing the objects and images” (Rancière 2009, 21) functions as a necessary and hitherto mostly missed chance for changing the world without enforcing exclusion and violence. In this respect, his project is undoubtedly anarchist in the sense that “anarchism not only provides the antidote to the statist degeneration of Marxism, but it can, more generally, prevent the authoritarian trap into which any attempt to realize the freedom of equals can fall” (Bottici 2014, 193).

Concomitantly, and in contrast to Arendt’s own method of not simply rejecting vita contemplativa but of extending it by the dimension of vita activa, Rancière’s correction of violent and exclusive emancipatory projects refuses to think about, let alone answer, one of the most pertinent political-theoretical questions: How can the rupture in the archipolitical logic be accomplished, if not by means of another arché? How can one counteract the police division of the recognized (public) and denied (private) languages, if not by way of institutional backing of one’s own position?

By leaving this question unasked and unanswered, it is not surprising, then, that in his later writings Rancière exchanges the strictly political questions for aesthetic ones. This conforms with Jay M. Bernstein’s remark that in times in which capital performs the crucial work of formation art functions as a mere “placeholder” for “absent politics” (Bernstein 1992, 269) as well as with Michael Hirsch’s criticism of the libertarian left, Rancière included, as “unpolitical” (Hirsch 2009, 223; cf. Meyer 2011, 31). Rancière advocates artistic and literary practice as a specific cultural path to the evolutionary redistribution of the sensible: it is not politics writ large but mute speech that operates without an “ordering principle” (Davis 2010, 107) and thus brings a “redisposing [of the] the objects and images that comprise the common world” (Rancière 2009, 21). For Rancière, the unpredictable and contingent appearance of mute speech is a messenger of equality. In contrast to an understanding of emancipation, according to which the emancipatory subject requires “a real ‘other’” (and thus also a real “self”) (Laclau 1996, 3), with the idea of mute speech Rancière does not provide a theory of the subject but shows the demonstration of dissensus by political subjects in the making. By positing a paradoxical fundamental or identity of man and at the same time refusing to consolidate it for the sake of securing its survival, his subject remains an abstract entity. However convincing the image of the emergence of mute speech, of new subjects and of a new sensible, coming about spontaneously, without interest, may be, it is politically implausible that “[b]eings without will, like Bartleby or Billy Budd” (Rancière 2004a, 159) or Schiller’s taciturn Juno Ludovisi, whom Rancière invocates in numerous texts, can endure. In Rancière’s “Quixotic” foundation of the political (Valentine 2005, 58), it remains unclear how and for whom these sluggish characters could become harbingers of democracy. That is why Andrew Gibson recognizes in the Rancièreian type of revolution the typical melancholy of the left (Gibson 2005).

Additionally, the emancipatory and world-making power of mute speech can be explained only in retrospect, namely only when the mute speeches of the past have been preserved, that is, institutionalized in some form. This means that the “conservation” or institutionalization of mute speech – via institutes, museums, books, and even in oral tradition – secures its permanence and enduring presence. Otherwise, its democratic promise remains reduced to a series of sporadic emancipatory phenomena: “Rancière argues for an understanding of democracy as sporadic, as something that only ‘happens’ from time to time and in very particular situations” (Biesta 2008, 108). While he can explain how a democratic movement comes about from below – through the development of the new speech and the redistribution of the sensible, etc. – he does not think of the necessity for permanence of the newly created sensible, because he observes it exclusively in a democratic process and speaks against any kind of archaizing its emancipatory political. However, the question is not whether the politics of equality can be institutionalized, but how it can be institutionalized. The step from the question of “whether” to the question of “how” is not a step, as Todd May says, from atheism to religion, but a step from atheism to agnosticism (May 2010, 145).

If Arendt’s revolutionary “practice of archaization turns out to be, paradoxically enough, a practice of anarchization”9 and if it is, nonetheless, never able to get rid of the problem of exclusion, Rancière’s own anarchic idea of subjectification is, especially after the aesthetic turn in his theory, in danger of sliding into inaction, indifference, and radical passivity. This, of course, does not necessarily have to be detrimental to the relevance of his thinking in terms of the critique of contemporary (post-)democracy. Moreover, and here I wish to reinstate Pitkin’s revaluation of Arendt’s separation of the social from the political, “What we need here is not separation but linkage” (Pitkin 1981, 346). If the notion of arché serves as the axis to which two seemingly irreconcilable theories are bound, around which they revolve and even complement each other, then one should revisit the figure of Hannah Arendt not as one of Jacques Rancière’s uncomfortable, unbearable predecessors but as a forerunner whose political thought provides answers to questions Rancière does not even venture to ask.

Democracy for Impertinent Citizens

It is 2010 when the Wutbürger (a newly coined German word meaning something akin to an outraged citizen) enters the political arena. The “Stuttgart 21” project, designed to make Stuttgart’s main station fit for high-speed trains and thus also for the twenty-first century, erupts in a lengthy political protest. This protest unites people from different social classes and generations, yet is predominantly led by older, wealthier, more conservative citizens. What is surprising is not only the tenacity of this civil disorder, but also the occasion. The protest is essentially about preserving an old building or, in more general terms, preserving the present from the tearing pace of change.

The established political parties and media have finally begun to show some understanding for this impulse to protest. Albeit in an often paternalistic tone, there has been a slow but sure recognition that the economic-technical-cultural movement answering to the name of “globalisation” since the 1990s, and described – sometimes optimistically, sometimes resignedly – as a given, is now displaying its flip-side: an apparently unstoppable upheaval which is tearing its way through all that is traditional without any emotion whatsoever. Either one adapts, or one is adapted: this is the simple and hard-hitting choice. The Wutbürger has, however, refused just to roll over and accept this. And with success. Both the notion itself and its concomitant political gestures have spread like wildfire and at the speed of the digital media. And now, as we are currently forced to ascertain with Donald Trump, the Wutbürger has even reached the White House in Washington.1

It must be said, however, that the expression Wutbürger oscillates between having a positive and a negative touch. Sometimes it is used with respect, and sometimes defamatorily. This surely has to do with the fact that rage is generally viewed, on the one hand, as a negative, aggressive and socially dangerous emotion, while, on the other hand, we also speak of righteous anger and holy rage. Is the Wutbürger then not rather a Mutbürger (Supp 2010), another newly coined word, meaning something akin to a courageous citizen, refusing to cower before the entire weight of police authority? Are rage, courage and – my topic –impertinence not just as much political-democratic virtues? Is impertinence in speech and action not just democratically acceptable, but in fact necessary?

Impertinence: an initial approach

Impertinence is a type of behaviour. It can emerge in an action or a remark. A typical reaction would be: “How impertinent to do that!” or “to say that!” And by “that” we mean something unashamed, cheeky, brazen. “And then he was so impertinent” – and here well brought-up female speakers hesitate at first, but then continue because they are at home with famous German literature: “as to speak aloud the Swabian greeting, the Götz quotation, ‘lick my arse!’”2 English-speakers have the famous f…-word instead. The historical background to the Götz quotation is a dishonourable gesture from the Middle Ages made to enemies passing by, often from high up in the castle walls: a showing of one’s naked behind. Nowadays, football fans or anti-police demonstrators sometimes make the same gesture. People who have the words above thrown at them usually react with consternation – they feel affronted – and perplexity, but also with anger and, in its superlative form, rage. The impertinent individual – but also the unashamed individual – does something which they should be ashamed of and yet is not ashamed of. Everyday judgemental language does concede shades of meaning, however. ‘Brazen’ refers to someone who is presumptuous, for example, but also to someone who is bold or, in American English, sassy. And ‘cheeky’ refers to someone who is naughty, but also carefree, forward, even plucky or audacious. All of which are certainly acceptable, even positive characteristics.

Let us start by addressing the impertinent character in his clearly negative variant. The present philosophical discussion allows us to draw upon a gripping, but also modest book, namely Aaron James’ Assholes. A Theory (James 2012, 5, 23, 27).We should pause to remember that this little book was preceded by two others, namely On Bullshit (2005) by Harry Frankfurt, in which the respected philosopher describes bullshit, the nonsense which we are confronted with in our everyday lives and also in philosophy, as something closely related to fake and bluff; and The No Asshole Rule (2007) by Robert Sutton, a bestseller in which the Stanford Professor of Management Science describes the way in which harassment of employees, usually practised by men abusing their power, is detrimental to morale and productivity.3 Along these lines, James describes a character whom we all know very well. He is usually male; he walks past a queue with his nose in the air, one could even say walks past regally; he interrupts discussions with high-handed gestures; with his shiny bicycle he nearly knocks down pedestrians attempting to cross the street on a green light; and if angrily chastised, he coolly sticks out his middle finger; on the motorway he changes lanes like a racing driver on the run, squeezing into gaps between cars and then impatiently flashing his lights.

This type of person also exists, as we should say here to avoid an obvious misunderstanding, in a non-everyday sphere, namely that ruled by art. “Many people think you are – excuse me! – an arsehole”, a female journalist once said, for example, to famous German theatre director Claus Peymann, to which he merely replied: “I would agree with that.” Not only have he and the no-less-famous actors Bernhard Minetti or Traugott Buhre repeatedly screamed at each other during rehearsals – art is about the “existential” after all – but Peymann has been “often aggressive”, as he himself freely admits, “especially to young actors” (Dössel & Peymann 2017). The writer Thomas Bernhard, who had very few friends, one of them being Peymann, was also remarkable for his clear yearning for status and money. The tricks he played on the Suhrkamp publisher, Siegfried Unseld, some of which were shameless, are well documented, even though the publishing house ultimately reaped its reward for so many years of financial support. It was as if Bernhard had attempted to honour the self-description of another Austrian author, Heimito von Doderer’s: “The writer is a disgusting fellow” (Hintermeier 2015)..

According to James, what unites these people as a type and makes them an object of theoretical interest, is a concurrence of three traits: they claim special advantages; they are immune to criticism; and they are immune to criticism because they believe themselves to have a claim to these advantages. They are therefore presumptuous by conviction, in other words they believe they have good – moral – reasons for their presumptuousness. The key concept for James is that of absent recognition. The type of person that we call an arsehole or idiot or jerk or, in my semi-abstract use of the language: the impertinent self, is incapable of recognising others, incapable of viewing them as equal to himself. At the very least, he is the self-appointed first among equals (as in the case of Peymann and Minetti, or Peymann and Buhre). In this sense, he is incapable of seeing others at all. Shame means being seen – being exposed; there is no shame without (at least imagined) onlookers. Impertinence or shamelessness means consciously not seeing, consciously ignoring those who see you.

I shall address these two points – shame and being seen, shame and equality – in more detail in the following. And I would like to do so by differentiating levels of meaning within the concept of impertinence.

Social and moral impertinence

Impertinence, I have said, means consciously not “seeing” the others who see you and who could thus expose you in public, it means consciously ignoring them, consciously disregarding them. The same is true of shamelessness. Shame is inextricably linked to the moral-practical principle of recognition. But the impertinent being belongs in more of a social context, the shameless being in more of a moral context. Shameless (or a “disgrace”) is our word, for example, for that group of rich people who continually and disproportionately grow richer at the expense of others, disproportionately because they could not possibly spend all the money they have “if they lived to be a thousand”, and because they contribute to a world in which it is possible for the eight richest people – yes: 8 – to own more than is owned by 50% of the world’s entire population, i.e. 3.6 billion people (Sanders 2016, 185; 2017, 45).4 It is shameless that they get excessively rich, and impertinent how they do so. People who upload photos and videos of injured, dead or dying people from their smartphones to the Internet in “car crash compilations” in order to get “likes” and “dislikes” are shameless. A behaviour is shameless which falls below basic moral standards, while it is impertinent to display such behaviour publicly. An impertinent creature and his bad actions know no guilt. Why, he asks himself self-confidently, should I wait in a queue when waiting is for the masses (in the deprecatory sociological meaning of the word), for losers and underdogs, and I am the top dog? I am not like all those others, I am better. The impertinent self would only feel ashamed in the way others do in front of people he in fact recognises as equals, people whose opinions matter.

In other words: he who is not ashamed – it is important to add: in that impertinent way – can or will not imagine how others see him, how others perceive him and value him. He is lacking that external perspective which could teach him where his limitations lie. To this extent and in moral terms, shame can be a salutary emotion. Only he who has learnt to see with the eyes of others, as we have known since George H. Mead if not before, can embrace the expectations of others and gear his behaviour towards them.

Psychologically and philosophically, a broad consensus generally exists that shame only emerges on the basis of intersubjective and social relationships (Demmerling & Landwehr 2007, 223).5 Sartre’s corresponding analysis in Being and Nothingness(1943) is the predominant and most famous philosophical contribution. In the years which he spent as a young lecturer in Jena, culminating in his Phenomenology of the Spirit (1807), Hegel was early to theorise on a battle between subjects for mutual recognition. Sartre referred to this theory and yet turned it on its head: by recognising each other (as entities recognising each other), two subjects laid not (only) the foundations for true freedom, but also (and at the same time) for “unfreedom”. The moment I see that another subject sees me, I understand that the subject is doing with me what I am doing with it, or have previously done with it: this subject objectifies me in the same way I objectify it. In this very objectivity, however, a freedom is lost, namely the freedom to be different from one’s definition as an object. Sartre describes situations of shame as specific occasions dramatising this phenomenological-ontological situation of being noticed. In shame, the seeing look of the other person catches me out and plunges me into a plight from which I cannot escape. I am, so to speak, a naked fact, removed from my possibilities. To this extent, shame is not just a social and a moral, but also an ontological reaction, particularly for Sartre (Sartre 1976, 338ff.; Honneth 1988; Butler 2003).

John Rawls positions the phenomenon in a narrower, namely moral, yet still social, framework. He defines shame as “the emotion evoked by shocks to our self-respect”, and self-respect seems to him to be the “most important primary good”, for without self-respect “all desire and activity becomes empty and vain” and “we sink into apathy and cynicism” (Rawls 1999, 386 & 388). Shame is a feeling which lends expression to the  isolating effect of injured self-respect, rendering it passive. The antisocial tendency is characteristic of this feeling. To this extent, shame is a necessary emotion in the negative sense, an emotion which necessarily has to be avoided if we do not wish – morally – to offend others in their self-respect; if we are interested – socially – in participating individuals; and if, finally, we are interested – politically – in participating fellow citizens. The emotion of shame is an obstacle to compassion (Nussbaum 2003, 342ff., Nussbaum 2004) and, in quite general terms, to being (together) with others. It isolates, even destroys our relationship to the world, we lower our eyes, avoid the gaze of others, indeed we want the ground to swallow us up, so to speak. In other words, we want to bury ourselves, to become invisible, to remove ourselves from all contact with others, which in turn has the negative effect of our being unable to communicate what was so shaming, being unable to share it with others (Cavell 1976, 286; Cyrulnik 2010). Shame is one of the most private and privatising of emotions.

Cultural and culture-critical impertinence

The social and moral levels of meaning form the inevitable background to that level of meaning which is key to my representation: namely the cultural and culture-critical level. Here it becomes clear why impertinence has acquired such a conspicuous status in today’s societal and concomitantly political self-conception. It becomes clear why impertinence has become an unavoidable Modern problem, why impertinence is necessarily part of Modernity.

By cultural level of meaning I do not primarily refer to the fact that culture often occurs in the plural when meant in a descriptive sense, i.e. as a way of life, yet always in the singular in the normative sense (for example in the exclamation: “This person has no culture!”). In the descriptive sense there are many cultures which are distinguished by their value convictions. And this is also true, of course, for attitudes towards shame: they differ depending on historical epoch and geographical region.6 By cultural level of meaning, I refer far more to sociological and culture-historical circumstances, and the foremost theorist in this context is Georg Simmel.

Simmel is one of those theorists who in their sociological, philosophical and culture-critical studies describe Modernity as a highly ambivalent epoch. On the one hand, Modernity permits greater subjective freedom; on the other hand, it leads to a weakening of social ties. On the one hand, it permits the individual to unfold his or her individuality on the general basis of formal equality and the particular basis of urban anonymity; on the other hand, it makes this unfolding difficult precisely because all individuals can in principle unfold.

Like other theorists, Simmel addresses the contradiction between the two ideals of freedom and equality, named by the French Revolution in the same breath (alongside fraternity, or solidarity). According to Simmel, these two ideals have a certain analogy to two different forms of individualism, namely “qualitative” and “quantitative” individualism. The ideal of equality and a corresponding quantitative individualism crystallised gradually with Christianity (the idea of God having created all men as equal), and especially with Protestantism, the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century and the ethical socialism of the nineteenth century. The ideal of freedom and corresponding qualitative individualism (at least in one sense) has its antecedents in Ancient Greece and aristocratic design. According to Simmel, it occurs exemplarily in the personalities represented by Shakespeare and Rembrandt, before finally developing to completion in Goethe and Romanticism, through to Nietzsche: the individual emerges in all its particularity, incomparability, exceptionality, and ingenuity. From Simmel’s point of view, then, Modernity is that epoch in which striving for qualitative individualism becomes a universal problem on the basis of realised quantitative individualism. Once all people have become equal legally and democratically, in law and as voters, there emerges both a general inclination and a specific necessity to make distinctions. Modern realisation of the contradiction between quantitative and qualitative individualism is concentrated in the phenomenon of visualisation. In public one has to appear – in both senses of the word: to seem to be, and to step forward – as an individual.

Simmel is aware that the framework of a politically egalitarian society increases the differentiation effort required by the individual. And, within this framework, differentiation can only be achieved by the mass of individuals at the level of perception, in the Ancient Greek aisthesis, in other words at the level of aesthetic appearance. Modernity, which emerged from a battle for the fundamental rights of the individual, now instigates a battle for sophisticated recognition, fought primarily at an aesthetic-visual level. Only at this level, not at the level of politics and the law, can socially non-dangerous differentiation now again take place. To be sure, it can also take place at the level of economic success and social achievement, in the sense of political and economic liberalism, but a democratic-egalitarian society is endangered by each further gain in economic and social power. In contrast, the aesthetic-cultural level permits unlimited differentiation in the manner of self-representation. In his study “The Metropolis and Mental Life” (1903), still exemplary today, Simmel describes all the “extravagances of mannerism, caprice, and preciousness” paid homage to by the people of Modernity, the dialectic masterpiece being the “blasé” individual. According to Simmel, a person is blasé who feels the constant striving for difference and craving for distinction to be “insubstantial” – only to distinguish himself from others by having precisely this attitude (Simmel 1995, 49-56, 121, 128).

Walter Benjamin gave this theory of Modernity a decidedly Marxist-political and film-aesthetic twist in his famous essay from the mid-1930s entitled “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”. Here Benjamin presents the theory that the aura surrounding works of art, their seeming uniqueness and unapproachability, falls away as soon as they can be mechanically reproduced. While the aura of art thrives on its “cult value”, its origins in magic and religious ritual, mechanical reproduction brings forth an art which has “exhibition value”. Art should not be totally unapproachable for human beings, but visible, eye to eye with its recipients (Benjamin 2003, 256). For Benjamin, the contemporary medium for this democratic to communistic levelling is film. With film, the relationship of the audience to the work changes from observational passivity to participative activity. According to Benjamin, anyone can “lay claim to being filmed”, in other words himself become an actor, even if it is only as an extra (Benjamin 2003, 262). This claim must, of course, be taken within the historical context of the 1920s, in which Benjamin, like many other intellectuals of the time, initially paints his own picture of the Soviet Union pugnaciously and expectantly. In particular, he focusses on the films at that time – again Soviet cinema, but also Fritz Lang and King Vidor – which portray the proletarian masses and their everyday heroes and heroines. But it is obvious that this theory of art and film is also prognostic in character. By establishing a culture of everyday aesthetics, of self-presentation, of self-exhibition, of self-portrayal, Modernity fulfils the political agenda of asserting both freedom and equality.

And where self-presentation is triumphal, impertinence is not far off. Display or exposure of the other is at the core of shaming; being displayed or exposed against one’s will is, vice versa, at the core of shame.7 In contrast, voluntarily displaying oneself in an embarrassing,8 shaming or socially awkward situation, consciously presenting oneself for others to look at, exhibiting oneself like a dummy in a shop window, means an inversion of shame and the mechanism of shaming. One’s own display becomes the core of impertinence, being moreover a display or exhibition which takes place in front of an audience frequently despised by the self-exhibitor. But one has to add immediately that impertinence can have diverse, at least two faces: a more narcissistic or a liberating face, the latter, for example, if people voluntarily display themselves in the so-called social media as someone who does not fulfil the fashion and body norms of a society fixated on super-slim female models, or masculinity on the cover of a body-building magazine.

Nevertheless, from here it is only one step to scathing cultural criticism. In a society in which individuals en masse take pleasure in exhibiting themselves, this obsession must become paradoxical, the illusion of a mass of individualists. “In many people”, as Theodor W. Adorno expressed it, “it is already an impertinence to say ‘I’”. Adorno wrote this aphorism in his Minima Moralia in 1944 and repeated it during an argument with Rolf Hochhuth in the mid-1960s. He is provided with one example by American philistines or babbitts who think it is acceptable to evaluate a great work of art with the words: “I like it” (Adorno 1978, 50; 1992, 244).9 A thoroughly banal statement, which effectively insults the work of art in all its conceptual inexhaustibility.

However we subject this impertinence culture to a critical and sociotheoretical evaluation, whether more negatively with Adorno or more positively with Benjamin and Simmel, it remains constitutively Modern. Against this background, the excessive desire for visualisation made possible by the digital media of our time, from video and YouTube to selfies and a productive pleasure in the interactivity of the Internet, can come as no surprise. It forms part of the specific, in Simmel’s sense, bipolar individuality culture of Modernity. Historical shifts can naturally be observed. Sociologists, for example, have been describing a double erosion of culture since the mid-twentieth century, starting as a “bourgeois” erosion in the nineteenth century, progressing through sociopolitical left-wing protest movements in combination with rock and pop music since the 1970s, and then undergoing a cultural proletarianisation or rather proletisation since the 1980s, ultimately unfolding before our collective eyes and ears in the soap operas, talk shows, casting shows, reality TV shows and event culture to be found on the private TV and radio channels (Bell 1976; Bella 1985; Schulze 1993; Maase 1997; Neumann-Braun 1999). And one of the features of the new prole culture is that it even speaks to intellectuals.

Impertinence is not just constitutively Modern, however. We can go a step further and claim it to be a democratic virtue. And this brings me to my final point.

Political-democratic impertinence

Rhetorical shaming strategies are well known to play a role in parliamentary and civil societal democracy. Some say we should be ashamed of a Minister who is first smugly triumphant and then cowardly evasive.10 Policemen and women who use violence against peaceful protesters are shouted at: “You ought to be ashamed! You’re a disgrace!” In the broad public discussion, the tabloids and also increasingly the so-called social media fulfil the function of individually apportioning blame and shame. Then a shitstorm breaks, followed by a hate speech.11 But wider sociopolitical campaigns also use the strategy of shaming: a film which shows men beating seals, those trusting creatures, and in particular “seal babies” – a cleverly selected expression – with blunt weapons; or another which shows dolphins, those intelligent and communicative creatures – and anyone who was a child in the 1960s or the 1990s will know the famous US-American television series and cinema films Flipper our “best friend” – getting caught up in tuna fish drag nets and dying; such films pillory the hunters, as well as the greed for profit and luxury which drives them. The awarding of Fair Trade certificates to numerous goods to date, from coffee to clothing, is a result of the same strategy.

If we shift our attention from the empirical to the normative level, Rawls and Nussbaum remind us that self-respect is a necessary condition for participating in social and political life, and that shame, the losing of self-respect, is therefore dangerous for democratic-participative forms of society, and for socially and morally relevant compassion altogether.

This danger exists not only at the individual, but also at the collective level. Democracy needs citizens who are certainly able to feel ashamed, but who do not feel deeply ashamed of their traditions. There are occasions and reasons for feeling collectively ashamed. In more recent German history we are all too aware of this as “guilt and shame in the light of the crimes of National Socialism”. The latest reminder for the USA is disturbing pictures of humiliation and torture from Abu Ghuraib, the Baghdad military prison. But a community is just as unable to live with an excess preponderance of shame as an individual is to live with an excess preponderance of self-disrespect. We do not necessarily have to call individual and collective self-esteem “pride” and “national pride” (or “patriotism”). But Richard Rorty is right, in my opinion, when he says that national self-esteem or national pride is the same thing for a country as self-respect for an individual: “a necessary condition for self-improvement”, and that includes with Aristotelian emphasis – that to a measured extent “pride outweighs shame” (Rorty 1999, 3) – and of course collective self-esteem is not restricted to the nation; it takes place in every big social or political group (like “class”, “feminism”, “Black Power”) that forms an identity.12

But what if we are confronted not with pride, the compensatory opposing pole to shame, but with impertinence and shamelessness, its sociomorally challenging antagonists?

First of all, here too we have to ascertain in a narrower political context that talk of an end to shame, of an increase in rude and uncivilised behaviour, is a reaction to increasing egalitarianism, and this is meant sociologically: namely to an increasing inclusion of social groups in the societal-representative whole who were previously excluded. The anxieties which find expression in this lamentation are especially directed at the lower social classes, to whom democratic rights have been extended in stages over the centuries. The basic tone of this lamentation is thus nostalgic: a yearning for a time in which shame guaranteed that life was ruled and regulated across all social differences, or so it is believed (Locke 2016, 5, 9, 11, 20).

From this critical perspective, impertinent behaviour is not just a cause for complaint, but rather a plea for caution regarding political standards and standardised ways of thinking. The socially excluded often have no other option but to proceed using forms of protest which cut across boundaries and provoke, thus having a tendency to be impertinent. Non-violent campaigns of civil disobedience have been orchestrated since the 1960s as conscious symbolic violations of legal norms, symbolic because legally nobody is allowed to suffer physical harm or material damage as a result, but also because these violations make a point which is graphic and indicates a deeper import. In contrast, the slap in the face which in 1968 Beate Klarsfeld gave Georg Kiesinger, the then Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, was impertinent in every sense of the word (presumptuous, brash, rude, wanton, plucky, even violent). In 1984, the heckling by MP Joschka Fischer during a parliamentary debate was also impertinent: “With respect, Mr. President, you are an arsehole!” More recently, the diatribe in verse form directed at Turkish autocratic President Erdogan by German satirist and TV presenter Jan Böhmermann was impertinent. These are all demonstrative actions in both senses of the word: actions intended to demonstrate (to show) something demonstratively (graphically, conspicuously). Impertinence, as this context once again makes clear, is a primarily social trait, and not, like shamelessness, a primarily moral one.

The impertinent citizen – and this includes likewise the shameless and unashamed citizen13 – is, accordingly, an ambivalent figure. Democratically, he seems to be as necessary as he is dangerous. He presents himself on both the progressive and the conservative/reactionary side, in sophisticatedly provocative political actions and in yelled abuse against the establishment, in demonstrative demands and in demonstrative contesting of minority rights, in the courageous defence of civil society against autocrats, and in the vulgarity of political-cultural proles. Impertinence is a part of democracy like the citizen who has come of age politically, is able to speak for himself and who now demands admission to the halls of power.

Donald Trump is not a Shameless Toddler: The Problems with Psychological Analyses of the 45th US President

I have the most loyal people […] I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters, OK? It’s, like, incredible.

— Donald Trump, campaigning in the US presidential primary

The child shall have things better than his parents: he shall not be subject to the necessities which they have recognized as dominating life. Illness, death, renunciation of enjoyment, restrictions on his own will, shall not touch him; the laws of nature, like those of society, are to be abrogated in his favor; he is really to be the center and heart of creation, “His Majesty the Baby,” as we once fancied ourselves to be.

— Sigmund Freud, “On Narcissism”

Trump has taught us that shame performs a vital democratic function – and how dangerous is the man who feels none of it.

— Jonathan Freeland, writing in The Guardian

Two Laments in the Age of Trump

As a scholar of shame and democracy, I cannot help but be struck by the degree to which Trump’s critics have described him as shameless. This characterization began during the primary campaign, continued through the general election, and has only persisted since his inauguration in January 2017. Trump, so this line of reasoning goes, has no regard for the basic norms of human conduct. He lacks any self-awareness or self-scrutiny. He seems beyond embarrassment, as if the only moral and social compass he follows is his own, which is nestled deep in the recesses of his “authentic” self where it remains immune to “false” and “external” ideas about what is appropriate and inappropriate, shameful or uncivil.

In my most recent (2016) work on shame, I have traced a history of a phenomenon I call The Lament that Shame is Dead, a nostalgic and recurring account of how people have lost their presumably once-secure sense of shame and will therefore be unable to live together under civil terms. (Locke 2016). This lament often presents itself in modernity, as it characterizes individualism as having supplanted a historical regard for others and the community.  But the fear of shamelessness and the belief that shame can be undone also existed in ancient Greece. An often-quoted line in work on shame is from Plato’s Protagoras: “shame and justice are needed for people to live [together] in cities” (Plato 2009, 322d). Political theorist Arlene Saxonhouse opens up her book on Athenian parrhesia, the Greek practice of frank and open speech, with this passage. Saxonhouse argues that we must have shame to check parrhesia and bind each other to the polis. She argues that shame has always had a precarious relationship to democracy, but that it must be preserved as a coherent censorial force in order for people to share the world with each other. Her book thus functions as a contemporary lament that shame is dead as she looks back to the Greeks as better understanding the essential role shame needed to play than we do in late-modernity (Saxonhouse 2006).

In the first chapter of my book, Democracy and the Death of Shame, I provide an extended tracing of the various iterations of The Lament from political theorists and philosophers to journalists, judges, sheriffs, lawmakers, and ordinary citizens. Their common refrain is that “we” have lost the capacity to live together because we no longer share some sense of common values or social expectations that would govern our lives. This loss of common values means we cannot feel shame or embarrassment for the same kind of actions; some argue we have lost the capacity to feel shame and embarrassment at all. I won’t rehearse all of these manifestations of The Lament (that Shame is Dead) here, but suffice it to summarize the phenomenon of The Lament as a nostalgic story of an imagined past in which shame regulated and secured social life. I argue that The Lament is actually a disciplinary and shaming device in its own right that positions some people as legitimate defenders of the social order and others as insurgent outsiders who lie “beyond the pale.” Against this view of shame as needing to be enforced and secured for the sake of civilization, I consider how practices of “unashamed citizenship” can actually bolster the practices essential to democratic life.

Given my skepticism about calls to “bring shame back,” the much-discussed shamelessness of Donald Trump presents a hard case. In fact, several friends and colleagues have written to me about Trump’s shamelessness, noting that it calls me to rethink whether longings for shame perform the regressive and inegalitarian work I have attributed to them. Are investments in shame correctives to the unruliness and incivility of politics and public life necessarily misplaced? Can they do more than target, pathologize, and conceal – as I have argued they tend to do – the voices of people claiming democratic space for themselves for the very first time? Trump, and the rest of the world, so this line of thinking goes, would be less dangerous, and it would be better for the US and the rest of the world if Trump had a healthy sense of shame. (By shame I mean a felt ethic of obligation and regulation that involves an actual or internalized audience that judges one’s thoughts and acts in terms of their relationship to norms or standards that one shares — or is expected to share — with others). Shame thus involves a social script, the departure from which occasions a set of negative feelings about oneself – feelings that most people seek to avoid. It is also corporeal – felt as the red on the face and ache in the gut. It is much deeper and more self-lacerating than embarrassment, the transient blush that occurs when one does something outside of social expectations. (See Locke 2016, 19).

Shame, in this sense, would mean a regulative brake that limits and restricts one’s ability to pursue ego-driven self-interest. It is similar to Freud’s characterization of conscience, that “special institution in the mind [that] … constantly watches the real ego” (Freud 1952, 408). Shame, by this account, would provide a horizon for Trump’s unfettered willfulness, humbling him and making him more aware that people cannot share the world and power within it without self-regulation and self-correction. (See Carroll 2017). His notorious penchant for tyrannical acts at the personal and political level suggests that he has no internal regulator, or if he does it does not correspond to the regulators with which “the rest of us” operate. Trump’s ostensibly shameless acts do nothing to advance the common good or invigorate democracy; they only isolate people from each other and leave us feeling powerless because we cannot discern the terms of his politics or the rules governing it.

A second and related lament in the Trump era warrants consideration. This second lament goes something like the following: Trump is a child who is unfit to govern because he lacks the basic norms of adult behavior. That is to say, Trump is a child, a toddler, a baby who is so impulsive that he cannot be trusted with the presidency. Here, too, a discourse of shame is present. Part of what makes early childhood distinctive is children’s lack of awareness or self-consciousness about their bodies and actions. They are beyond embarrassment, and this is what endears them to us even as we may find some of it revolting (e.g., the absence of bathroom habits, and so on). Rousseau, of course, famously idealizes this early stage of development and the natural goodness (l’amour de soi) that governed it (Rousseau 1979). Whole movements in democratic education and modern popular psychology have emphasized the Rousseauean desire to preserve childhood as long as possible and, even in adulthood, to care for one’s “inner child.” But it has a darker side, as the child’s anti-sociality can lord itself over the parents, and adult lives can be surrendered to the child’s tyranny.

Just as theorists of shame have illuminated ambivalences about shame and its relationship to democratic citizenship and politics, so too have scholars in both queer studies and childhood studies emphasized the varying political and social ends toward which the “child” can be mobilized.  Much of this work emphasizes the social and historical construction of childhood as an idea about both petulance and innocence rather than an actual temporal state, hence the ability to insult a grown man like Trump by calling him a “child” (de Schweinitz 2011, Edelman 2004, Stockton 2009).

These twin laments relate to each other and to my ongoing research on shame and democratic citizenship as well as my current interest in the figure of the child in politics and political theory. This essay begins to unpack their significance for how we think about the relationship between democratic citizenship and opposition to anti-democratic movements and their leadership. Ultimately, I argue that both laments overly psychologize Donald Trump and in so doing de-politicize and de-historicize him. That is to say, by attributing the problems of Trump’s America to Trump’s shamelessness or his childishness, they deflect attention away from the social, cultural, and material conditions on the ground in the US that put Trump in power.

Lament I: The Lament that Shame is Dead

First, I want to map out in more detail the phenomenon I call The Lament that Shame is Dead. The Lament (as I will refer to it) is a nostalgic story about how a cult of authenticity and self-aggrandizement in which individuals’ own feelings about themselves, and how they can satisfy their drives and pleasures, override and displace an imagined past wherein self-restraint and the capacity for negative self-assessment reigned and functioned as a check and limit against our baser human tendencies.

Democracy and the Death of Shame uses four case studies to make this point, but I am going to begin by looking at the one case that is most relevant for my discussion of Donald Trump and, potentially, other right-wing leaders who exploit populist discourse and proudly display shamelessness and being unashamed of their bigotry. Specifically, I will briefly sketch my third case (found in chapter 4), de Tocqueville’s nostalgia for the American founding aristocracy and his anxiety about the crass and violent future embodied in the election of President Andrew Jackson. Given that Trump idealizes Jackson and has his portrait in the Oval Office, this example is especially apt for the current query.

In  de Tocqueville’s account of America – which became canonized in the US as an actual description of life on the ground rather than a touchstone for theorizing about French political and social culture – increasing equality in the “social” arena, rather than the strictly “political”, marked all aspects of 1831 American life. This was evident in ideas about, and habits around, among other things, Anglo-American girls’ and women’s dating and marriage, the “relaxing of the social bond” in relationships between husbands and wives and parents and children, and the generally convivial social relationships that cut across social class in New England towns (de Tocqueville 2003). Although de Tocqueville and his companion Gustave de Beaumont arrived in America to study American prisons for the French government, they ended up writing about Anglo-Americans’ broader social habits and their relationships to democratic political institutions, which interested them because they suggested how French democracy, also born in a late eighteenth-century revolution, but with less stability, might also “grow up” (Janara 2002). (Here, the nation itself is the child).

While de Tocqueville acknowledges some of the pleasures of democratizing social life, specifically with respect to the softening of the social bond between parents and children who can relate to each other more as friends than as master and subject, he also expresses alarm and concern about the loss of a properly educated and well-bred ruling class. This concern crystallizes in his account of the populist rule by Jackson. De Tocqueville’s lamentations about this loss in America mirrored the concerns raised by the American founding class, which symbolically died when Jackson beat John Quincy Adams in the 1828 election (Locke 2016, 105-106). De Tocqueville worried that although the elite class opposed Jackson, “the people” clung to him as their demagogue. He writes: “Since I have been in America, I have almost got proof that all the enlightened classes are opposed to General Jackson, but the people holds to him and he has numbers in his favor” (de Tocqueville 1959, 106). As far as de Tocqueville could tell, a President Jackson would jeopardize the mores that democracy needed and shame secured.

Indeed, it is tempting to share de Tocqueville’s account of Jackson as the shameless and morally bankrupt genocidal maniac against the cool, rational, and civil aristocratic class that he laid to rest. The Jackson presidency involved a fully-developed campaign against American Indians and a ferocious slave trade, which Jackson participated in. He eschewed books and ideas and instead proved himself on the battlefield. While these intellectual differences hold fast when comparing Jackson with de Tocqueville’s preferred candidate, the world-traveling and French speaking John Quincy Adams, who often accompanied his father on foreign missions when he was Secretary of State (Remini 2002, 11-16), it is unfair to locate Indian genocide and slave-trading solely in the lap of the “new arrival.” One of John Quincy’s most sympathetic biographers notes that although he described (in 1841) the mass deaths of American Indians as one of the “heinous sins of the nation,” this view came late in life. For most of Adams’s professional life, he held the same view as Jackson with respect to Indians and the need to destroy them for the sake of Anglo-American progress and expansion. At the end of the War of 1812, Adams understood “extermination of all Indian rights [as] a national duty”; as secretary of state, Adams defended Jackson’s invasion of Florida (Spain) and the “execution of Indian prisoners without trial” as sound measures against the “barbarities of the Indians.” Even at the end of his life, he remained committed to natural conquest, “white power,” and the “inevitable expansion of Anglo-Saxon civilization” (Parsons 1973, 339-340).

Moreover, the Adams campaign’s attacks on Jackson during the presidential elections (of 1824 and 1828) were exercises in shaming and humiliation that focused on his poor, Southern breeding and the fact that his wife, Rachel, smoked a pipe and had never been formally divorced (though the couple had sued for divorce in civil court) from her abusive first husband. Just as Rachel Jackson was pathologized for not being sufficiently feminine, the Adams campaign also attacked her for not really being “white.” The moral crimes John Quincy and his allies feared were not genocide and slavery, but a threat to the founders’ codes of race, gender, and social class (Parsons 2011, 143-144). Hence the shame that the ruling class wanted to preserve was one that guaranteed a particular racial and social order.

The Lament that Shame is Dead, then, is a narrative of civilization in decline that projects an image of a just and orderly past in which the emotion of shame regulated social and political life. It functions as a shaming practice in its own right as it decries insurgent citizens as unassimilable and “beyond the pale.” My study recounts how, during times of popular democratic transition, as the Jacksonian era in the early US was, legitimate moral and political problems are pinned on democratic “new arrivals” rather than the established ruling class. Lamenting Andrew Jackson’s shamelessness propped up a vision of the aristocratic founders as morally upright and beyond rebuke rather than agents of genocide, enslavement, and couverture themselves. In so doing, The Lament also pathologizes the legitimately democratic and egalitarian moments of the 1830s that made possible Jackson’s presidency, his wife’s separation from her abusive husband, and the disruption of gender norms associated with the Jacksons themselves.

Trump’s Shamelessness

Like Andrew Jackson, whom he explicitly admires for his rogue and populist appeal, Donald Trump has been frequently characterized as being shameless and without restraint or regard for others or the agreed-upon codes of social conduct that make life together possible. Journalist Steven Ivory wrote after the August 2017 white nationalist march in Charlottesville, Virginia, which Trump defended in part:  “If Donald Trump were a comic book villain, his superpower would be the complete and utter immunity to shame” (Ivory 2017). This can be extended to the US voters who elected him and continue to support his presidency, as well as the media that have not held him accountable for his actions (Taylor 2016). More generally, the nation itself could be said to lack shame so long as Donald Trump is the President. The Lament reads the Trump Presidency as evidence that shame is, at long last, finally dead in the United States.

The characterization of Trump as out of step with recent and historical norms of conduct is not particularly controversial. A recent New York Times editorial, for example, outlined the contrast between conservative criticisms of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama and the way that Donald Trump has flouted both sartorial and diplomatic conventions that conservatives have historically upheld (New York Times 2017).

But the Jackson case reminds us to ask what the focus on shamelessness in Trump and his voters conceals about the dynamics of his administration vis-à-vis the norms and habits that we might conscript (via shame) to regulate. In other words, making the problem about Trump’s (and his supporters’) character deficits and psychological pathologies, because they are allegedly not beholden to shared norms that would induce shame or negative self-assessment, gets in the way of analyzing how the “Trump effect” also perpetuates and reinforces already-existing values in US politics and culture. This echoes what Jeanne Morefield describes as the imperial “politics of deflection” i.e., “this is not who we are” (Morefield 2014). There are too many examples of Trump behavior characterized as shameless to recount here, but in addition to his refusal to denounce the white nationalist march in Charlottesville, they include his response to the devastation brought to Puerto Rico by 2017 Hurricane Maria and his notorious “grab ‘em by the pussy” comments that were caught on tape in 2005. The presence of white power in the US, which escalated during the presidency of Barack Obama, the colonial maltreatment of Puerto Rico, and a Hollywood culture of sexual exploitation (now materializing with Harvey Weinstein) did not begin with Donald Trump. He is, in many ways, the effect of these values. He then sees himself as their rightful inheritor and embraces them baldly and shamelessly. My point is not that we should embrace Trump or not hold him accountable. The point is that fixating on Trump’s particular personality disorders also conveniently masks the ways in which his “shameless” ignorance, disregard, and harassment is part and parcel of economies and histories long in the making.

Moreover, there are significant numbers of commentators who suggest that Trump’s voters, if not the man himself, are not really without shame. Rather, they feel shame and humiliation as a result of their lost status in a country that increasingly claims to value diversity and inclusion at the same time that it has de-stabilized and exported its manufacturing base, thus compromising the jobs of many people in the so-called “white working class.” (See Coates 2017). Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun, writes: “working people’s stress is often intensified by shame at their failure to ‘make it’ in what they are taught is a meritocratic American economy….Instead of challenging this ideology of shame, the left has buttressed it by blaming white people as a whole for slavery, genocide of the Native Americans and a host of other sins, as though whiteness itself was something about which people ought to be ashamed. The rage many white working-class people feel in response is rooted in the sense that once again, as has happened to them throughout their lives, they are being misunderstood” (Lerner 2016). Leaving aside the question for now of whether or not whites should be ashamed of whiteness, read as white supremacy and not a generic cultural trait of Anglos and Europeans, and whether or not working class whites ought to feel ashamed for having to share the world with people of color, the point is that many Trump voters appear to feel deep shame for their failure to live up to the American promise of independent wage-earning and civic belonging. Rather than interrogate the terms of this promise, who receives it, and what are the socio-economic conditions that leave it unmet, they look to place the blame on other victims of socio-economic violence. Trump provides the perfect script – immigrants and women have stolen the white working class [man’s] rightful place as head of household and foreman on the factory floor. Trump’s popularity with wealthy white Americans also suggests that they, too, might feel shame for having to share seats in elite business schools and corporate boards with immigrants and people of color. One could say they should not feel ashamed for lost status because they still have immense social and political power, but shame is not reasonable in that way.

Indeed, for all we know Trump himself may in fact feel deep shame for having failed to live up to the status he inherited. He is far from a member of an insurgent working or middle class (as Andrew Jackson was), but he has nonetheless positioned himself as the spokesperson of those who are (even as he serves the interest of an oligarchy). He is also an outsider to electoral politics. I have suggested in my work that all of the mockery of Jackson had to have an effect on his sense of self, and that perhaps that shame fueled rather than abated his genocidal longings as he tried to speak in the “civilizing” tongue of the founders. Michael Warner reminds us, “the first thing we do with our shame is pin it on someone else” (Warner 1999, 3). If Trump is the narcissist many have claimed, that does not mean he is without shame; to the contrary, narcissism can be a defense against shame (Burgo 2012). Our own feelings of inadequacy and incompetence can become, as Adam Haslett has noted, “weaponized” against others (Haslett 2016). It’s not at all clear how “bringing shame back” disables the Trump regime and the threats it poses.

Lament II: Trump is a Child (“His Majesty the Baby”)

I now want to turn to the second lament, related to the first: Trump is a child (and therefore, by definition, without shame). Cartoons that represent Donald Trump as everything from an excrement-covered baby threatening world stability, to a lap-child of Vladimir Putin and Steve Bannon, have appeared in newspapers around the world since Donald Trump began his presidential campaign. Some dissenters insist that “the president is not a child [because] … children can improve. Children speak with inside voices. Children ask for help when there are things they cannot reach,” the trope of the spoiled, out-of-control child has taken hold.

Not only present in cheeky caricatures, GOP insiders and Trump staffers indulge the narrative of Trump as a child who needs managing. A cartoon of the White House as a play pen followed Republican Senator Bob Corker’s 2017 Tweet: “It’s a shame the White House has become an adult day care center”(@SenBobCorker, October 8, 2017). Also on Twitter, Political scientist Daniel Drezner has been tracking Republican politicians and GOP staffers who describe Trump as a child or toddler, using the hashtag #ToddlerinChief, and hit 671 mentions in February 2019 (@dandrezner, February 26, 2019). Tweets take the form of “I’ll believe that Trump is growing into the presidency when his staff [or allies or GOP senators] stops talking about him like a toddler” and then include an excerpt from an insider comment that laments Trump’s addiction to TV, need for structured and unstructured playtime, and so on. (Since Drezner’s project began, someone else now Tweets under @ToddlerInChief, a fake Donald Trump account). Many of the comments in Drezner’s running file do not make direct references to childhood per se, but expose to the generally difficult-to-manage, impulsive, and easily distracted nature of Trump – qualities he presumably shares with young children. This demonization through infantilization, we can presume, is intended to show Trump as immature, incapable of leading, and someone who cannot be trusted with the heady work of adult governing. It also sets the stage for his advisors taking charge, assuming the role of what one staffer described as the “Montessori teacher” who cycles him between slack and activity (Drezner 2017). His advisors become the “grown-ups” victimized by a tyrannical child.

I want to think more critically about what is going on in this portrait of Trump as an imperious child and its resonance with Freud’s account of “his majesty the baby,” which I quote in the opening epigraphs. As I note there, Freud writes: “The child shall have things better than his parents: he shall not be subject to the necessities which they have recognized as dominating life. …[R]estrictions on his own will, shall not touch him; the laws of nature, like those of society, are to be abrogated in his favor; he is really to be the center and heart of creation, ‘His Majesty the Baby,’ as we once fancied ourselves to be.” For Freud, the birth of the child is an opportunity for parents to channel their own unmet longings into their new “creation” (Freud 1952, 406).

That is, to say, parents often position themselves as subjected to the demands of the ego-driven child who rules them, but Freud’s work suggests a more reflexive quality at work. The child becomes an agent of parental narcissism – a container for the parents’ decaying dreams for themselves. Parental fondness (for the child) and investment in its perfection creates this fixation on the child and gives it power over adults. Freud describes the “attitude of fond parents toward their children [as] a revival and reproduction of their own, long since abandoned narcissism.” He continues: “The child shall have things better than his parents” and parents “renew in [the child] the claims for privilege which were long ago given up by themselves” (Freud 1952, 406). The child is never imperious ex nihilo for Freud, but always because of the narcissistic condition of the parents. In other words, blaming the child for being childlike misses the point.

It is striking that the problem for Freud then is not about the naturally imperious baby who governs the adults, but about the power adults give over to the baby out of their own narcissism. When Trump said during the primary campaign that he could shoot a person on Fifth Avenue in broad daylight because his “people” (supporters, fans) are so much more loyal than the supporters of his opponents, he captures how he is a monster of his base’s creation (Flores 2016). Capturing the monster as a creation rather than beginning, a cartoon from Dubai’s Khaleej Times depicts “Trumpenstein,” a Frankenstein monster unleashed by the “Republican Lab.” In this frame, the blame lies with the GOP for their irresponsible creation and then abandonment. (Eileen Hunt Botting argues that Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein to make a point about the plight of abandoned children. See Botting 2017). Trump’s electorate and the GOP have given him this power; we might add that so too have capital and the law that backs it, none of which seem to expect from him basic habits of adult restraint. To extend the recurring metaphor of Trump as a child, let us consider how reading and treating Trump as such speaks to the parents’ desires.

And who might these parents be and what do they desire? In the case of Trump, adults’ fantasies of being children who do not have to be ruled by shame are life-giving. What fuels the Trump presidency is its ability to provide a device through which “the people” channels its own longing for unfettered speech and actions, sexual indiscretion, and other desires it feels have been unfairly regulated and censored by “political correctness,” feminism, anti-racism, and so on. US voters and citizens who have supported Trump – both before and after the election – repeatedly praise him for saying what they are too afraid to say, for speaking his mind frankly and authentically. Trump being a child who does not play by the rules of “grownup” politics provides succor for his followers (read here as parents) who resent being forced to constrain their own desires. They have transferred their own resentments about adulthood into him, and therefore the insult that he is a child is misplaced; his childishness is precisely the investment, and it will never be used to undo him.

Indeed, far from an insult or something that could debilitate the Trump presidency, Trump’s performance of childishness could be an explicit strategy. This would exploit that other side of childishness — of Rousseauean innocence, natural goodness, and naiveté. By positioning himself as a political naïf who does not know or abide by the standard rules of political life, so much so that he repeatedly breaks rules of political speech and decorum, Trump burnishes his reputation as “authentic” and true. His failure to comport with the standard norms of social and political life, ostensibly secured by shame, makes him all the more attractive to those who have their own frustrated (parental) desires that can live  on through Trump’s self-aggrandizing imperial rule. Even when he says and does things that seem vile and disrespectful, he can be forgiven by virtue of being childlike, which on balance is seen as better than being too beholden to the social rules of political and social life – social rules that many see as having alienated and ridiculed them. His own shaming of others, similarly, is legitimated by his under-development as an adult. He situates himself as outside of the economy of shame as cover for weaponizing (to use Haslett’s term) shame against others.


I have sought to contextualize two laments about the rise of Donald Trump in the United States. These laments may be useful mechanisms for highlighting Trump’s wrongdoings, forging solidarity among anti-Trump groups and parties, and implementing one of Saul Alinsky’s rules for radicals: Ridicule your enemies (Alinsky 1989). But making the case that because Trump is shameless, the US needs to “bring shame back” could easily backfire. Similarly, painting him as a petulant and imperious child against the backdrop of sober, “grown-up” establishment politicians has also depoliticized the interlocking forces (such as capital, misogyny, and whiteness) that have given him power. In a culture that positions itself, as Lee Edelman notes, as “fighting for the children,” calling a politician a child in fact celebrates where it means to oppose (Edelman 2004). Rejecting the “grown-up” world of “establishment” politics, Trump’s so-called childishness represents him as blessedly naïve about politics and the very thing the Republican Party fights to protect and promote. There are potentially reactionary implications of deploying narratives of loss and regret that mourn the passing of previous eras when people were properly shame-regarding and “adult,” as opposed to a childish and shameless present.

These tactics keep us unduly focused on Trump himself, and less aware of and in touch with both the forces that empower him and those who could depose him. Moreover, they give cover for those who, defending right-wing policies as natural outgrowths of common sense shame, position insurgent democratic resistance as shameless and “beyond the pale.” As right-wing populist leaders, who campaign and win on “authenticity” and “ignorance” of the corrupt rules of the political establishment, continue to win elected office around the world, their critics would do well to consider discourses of opposition that do not play into the very strategy they deploy and their supporters demand.

Shameless Deplorables

As Mary Dudziak has observed, following World War II, “racial discrimination in the United States received increasing attention from other countries,” as foreign presses “carried stories of discrimination against non-white foreign dignitaries, as well as American blacks” (Dudziak 1988, 62). The Nazis had been so thoroughly identified with racism that the US had no choice but to attend to its own horrific political culture of white supremacy if it at all hoped to nullify Soviet criticism that condemned the US as a racist regime. The purpose of this essay is to briefly consider both the role that “shame” played in the African American struggle for civil rights during the Cold War, and the subsequent role of “shamelessness” in the rise of an openly racist, white nationalist, regime in the US in 2016.

At the dawn of the Cold War, the US tradition of public, ritualistic torture and murder known as lynching proved particularly problematic for American propaganda efforts. Indeed, at the same time that the United States attempted to assert its moral authority, articulated in opposition to both Nazi and Soviet authoritarianism, the Russian phrase “А у вас негров линчуют” (“and you are lynching negroes”) became a meme, invoked in the face of all American criticism of the Soviet system (Lucas 2012, 307). African American scholar-activist Ida B. Wells had observed in 1900 that the United States’

national crime is lynching. It is not the creature of an hour, the sudden outburst of uncontrolled fury, or the unspeakable brutality of an insane mob. It represents the cool, calculating deliberation of intelligent people who openly avow that there is an “unwritten law” that justifies them in putting human beings to death without complaint under oath, without trial by jury, without opportunity to make defense, and without right of appeal (Wells 1900).

That “unwritten law” that Wells refers to is white supremacy. A journalist who had attended a lynching in the American South interviewed a white man who had joined a lynch mob, and asked whether or not the black victim was actually guilty of the crime for which he had been ritually executed and was told plainly that the question of guilt was “irrelevant,” that “no particular crime was avenged,” and that “the negro population was being warned never to forget that the colored man in the South is still a slave, that between him and the white man there can be no law, no claim to justice” (Quispel 2002, 39; 58). Lynching was the foundation of a culture of extra-judicial racial terror that facilitated the legal regime of “Jim Crow,” the system of segregation and legal white supremacy that had been established in the twentieth century through the United States Supreme Court’s decision in the Plessy vs Ferguson (Harlen 1896) case and which was overturned in 1954 as a result of the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Brown vs Board of Education of Topeka (Warren 1954).

In the Plessy case, the Supreme Court had decided that racial segregation was Constitutional as long as racially separated facilities were “equal” in utility. In the Brown case, the Supreme Court found that separate facilities “were inherently unequal,” however, and ordered mandatory desegregation of all public schools, dismantling the basis of Jim Crow. That court order did not compel those white Americans to accept the political equality, or the humanity, of their African American compatriots, however, and so any execution of the court’s intent was still doomed to be carried out by people who had been, for generations, nurtured in a political culture, and social reality, of white supremacy. Nor would any Supreme Court decision ever undo the centuries of racist denigration and the normalization of violence against black and indigenous bodies that informed that political culture and social reality, either (Harlen 1896).

The Eisenhower administration mobilized federal power to facilitate the desegregation struggle in the south in the immediate aftermath of the Brown case. To declare an opposition to Soviet oppression while tolerating white Southern elites’ political heritage of racist terror was a hypocrisy too obvious to ignore, and so Cold War ideological commitments to an explicitly American “liberal democracy” characterized by “freedom” and “opportunity” demanded action. On 24 September 1957, Eisenhower explained his decision to deploy federal troops to Little Rock Arkansas after the rioting that had ensued following a court order to desegregate Central High school:

At a time when we face a grave situation abroad because of the hatred that Communism bears toward a system of government based on human rights, it would be difficult to exaggerate the harm that is being done to the prestige and influence, and indeed to the safety, of our nation and the world. Our enemies are gloating over this incident (emphasis mine) […] We are portrayed as a violator of those standards of conduct which the peoples of the world united to proclaim in the Charter of the United Nations (Eisenhower 1957).

The “honor” of the United States had been diminished, and so the Commander-in-Chief of the US armed forces deployed paratroopers to Little Rock Arkansas and assumed command of the Arkansas National Guard from governor Orval Faubus. Historian John A. Kirk observed that the extent to which the incident in Little Rock had “brought international pressure to bear on the United States to tackle the problem of racial inequality” should not be underestimated since, prior to this incident, Eisenhower had been “reluctant to voice support for (desegregation) in public” and, in private, was “disparaging” of the Supreme Court decision to order American schools to racially integrate (Kirk 2007, 12).

In 2014, a team of psychologists from the US and Canada investigated the connection between the experience of shame and the motivation to change one’s self as a result of that emotional experience. They observed that, despite the potentially corrective power of shame in addressing aberrant behavior, “shame can simultaneously promote a motivation to change the self and distance oneself from the shame provoking stimulus, thus possibly compromising people’s actual efforts to change the self.” This is to say that at the same time that an individual may be shamed into changing problematic behavior, it is sometimes the case that the individual disassociates themselves from that original behavior so completely that it becomes more difficult to perceive the extent to which the original behavior was rooted in attitudes, perceptions, and motives that endure, unchanged (Lickel et al 2014).

It was not compassion for African Americans’ struggle for equality that had compelled Eisenhower to action. Eisenhower had been shamed into action. The drama of his decisiveness became a metaphor for the US’ commitment to a “a system of government based on human rights,” but it was a metaphor of dubious substance (Eisenhower 1957). Certainly, the images of patriotic, armed, US Army paratroopers staring down “othered,” southern, racists allowed white Americans from the north and west of the country to distance themselves from Jim Crow racist discrimination even as many of those same Americans remained personally committed to white racial supremacy and sympathetic, even if only passively, to racial segregation. Displays of racism (even if not racism itself) had been rendered “un-American.”

In 1981, Richard Nixon’s notorious, and infamous, campaign consultant Lee Atwater recounted to political scientist Alexander Lamis the basis of the American Republican Party’s “Southern Strategy” of covert racism and “racially coded” political rhetoric. This “Southern Strategy” was meant to appeal to right-wing, white American racists without openly employing appeals to racist hatred. Atwater’s comments are illuminating:

You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger” – that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites. […] “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger” (Perlstein 2012).

It is unclear to what extent the status quo in Republican Party politics is still represented by this preference for “abstract,” “racially coded,” politics given the openly racist bigotry (not to mention misogyny) of Republican President Donald Trump (Leonhardt et al, 2018, and Cohen 2017, and Graves and Morris 2017). On the campaign trail in 2016, Democratic Candidate Hillary Clinton remarked, half-jokingly, that:

[Y]ou could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables… They’re racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic – Islamophobic – you name it. And unfortunately, there are people like that. And he has lifted them up. He has given voice to their websites that used to only have 11,000 people – now have 11 million. He tweets and retweets their offensive hateful mean-spirited rhetoric (Reilly 2018).

Clinton later apologized for her comments. Nevertheless, a group of Trump supporters proceeded to dub themselves “The Deplorables,” while condemning Clinton as being out of touch. Lee Atwater’s “Southern Strategy” turned the former confederacy into a solidly Republican voting bloc, after a century of Democratic Party control, by making veiled appeals to the racism of white people in the South after de jure racist discrimination had become untenable given the US’ global posture in relation to the Soviets, and the international pressure on the US to address the concerns of the Civil Rights movement. In the context of contemporary right-wing American electoral politics, however, it is not clear whether electoral success requires politicians to veil their appeals to their constituents’ racism in abstract, coded, language (Washington Post 2017).

There is no Soviet rival for international hearts and minds, intent on shaming the US for its racism. In his famous essay, “The Unipolar Moment,” right wing American political commentator, and former physician, Charles Krauthammer observed that it had “been assumed that the old bipolar world would beget a multipolar world” but that “these assumptions are mistaken. The immediate post-Cold War world is not multipolar. It is unipolar. The center of world power is the unchallenged superpower, the United States, attended by its Western allies” (Krauthammer 1990).

One apparent consequence of the American perception of itself as a unipolar hyperpower (a perception that endures, to this day, whether real or not) is that where once the “Third World” was understood as an ideological battlefield for “hearts and minds,” today, the President of the United States is now free to dismiss developing nations as “shithole countries” and migrant workers from Latin America in the US as “animals.” Moreover, he is free to do this while still enjoying an 89% approval rating from Americans who identify themselves with the Republican Party (Dawsey 2018, and Davis 2018, and Gallup 2018).

Shame only works in relationship to a shared moral belief system and so the absence of any shame in one who has committed wrong-doing would seem to indicate the absence of a counterpart that is capable of inspiring shame in the offender. Certainly, there is no clear geo-political counterpart to the United States to match the Cold War-era rivalry that the US had with the Soviet Union, and with the rise of racist, nationalist, politics throughout the EU it is unclear to what extent Europeans still possess the capacity (or the political will) to shame the United States for its racism and excesses. Indeed, with no clear rival, and with little sincere indication of discomfort from its “allies,” there is nothing to inspire shame in the American hyperpower, and this, in part, is why Donald Trump is the President of the United States.

Shame and the Challenges of Postwar Western Democracies

As the Second World War approached its end, Saul K. Padover worked as an intelligence officer for the US Army’s Psychological Warfare Division. In this capacity, he interviewed inhabitants of the first US occupied German cities about their relationship to the National Socialist regime that was about to collapse. After the war, he published a report about this time in a book entitled Experiment in Germany. His descriptions of the different German characters he encountered and their reactions to his questions testify to his astute capacity of observation and his psychological sensibility. Whereas Padover was mostly interested in assessing the political views of the Germans he had interviewed, this rich material also offers a unique insight into Germans’ varied emotional responses to the end of the war in their confrontation with a representative of the new political power.

Regularly, Padover would ask Germans at some point during an interview what they knew about the German crimes during the war. In response his interlocutors displayed the full range of typical reactions: denial, banalization, rationalization, callousness, the defense of alleged ignorance, and occasionally a strong moral indignation about what was sometimes explicitly called the national “shame” (Padover 1946, 66-68; 192). Most strikingly, however, one small group reacted differently from all of those mentioned above. They stopped talking, averted their eyes and started shivering, crying or praying. Padover’s question triggered an emotional reaction in them that showed all the characteristics of shame (Padover 1946, 68, 136, 145). These Germans did not only accept the reality of the German crimes but also the fact that they were themselves connected to them. Thus, those who used the term “shame” were not necessarily those who showed the signs of shame. Both groups nevertheless expressed the same moral convictions regarding the German atrocities. They differed, however, in the way they positioned themselves towards those crimes. Those who seemed to feel shame accepted a collective responsibility, those who were outspoken about the German disgrace tended to disavow their own connection to it.1

Shame is experienced as the strongest possible attack on a person’s self-worth. It is a self-reflexive emotion which is intimately tied to the social norms an individual consciously or unconsciously subscribes to, and at the same time it makes these connections discernible. When shame is triggered, there is a breakdown of the self and the usual social interactions are incapacitated. Because of this, shame demands to be acted upon, to find a way out of it. This is also the reason why shame, when it is directly spoken about, has already lost its power over the individual who speaks, either because the cause for shame was only temporal, or because it was transformed into something else by adjusting the individual’s, or the group’s, normative convictions and forms of identity. The latter can be observed in the case of postwar Germans who stopped thinking of themselves as Germans because being German itself was experienced as shameful (Moses 2009; Parkinson 2015). Padover’s book illustrates the intricacies of shame in one of the twentieth century’s most crucial moments of rupture. In what follows we want to argue that because of shame’s specific and complex character a systematic focus on this emotion can alter our understanding of the most fundamental historical shifts and challenges within western democracies since the Second World War. (On the history of emotions see Rosenwein 2002; Frevert 2013; with respect to deep political change Reddy 2001).

Various scholars have elaborated on shame’s social and emotional complexity. Jennifer Manion defines shame as a “self-reflective emotion of negative global assessment, [which] involves a painful, sudden awareness of the self as less good than hoped for and expected, precipitated by the identification […] of a seemingly significant character shortcoming” (quoted in Locke 2007, 149). In experiencing shame, the individual interacts with the opinions and views of external actors through the emotion’s inherent self-reflection. This dynamic makes shame a fundamental emotion in the formation of identities of both individuals and groups (Jasper 2011, 5-6). Thomas Scheff therefore calls shame the “master emotion” designating “a large family of emotions and feelings that arise through seeing the self negatively, if even only slightly negatively, through the eyes of others, or only anticipating such a reaction.” Shame, then, regulates other more basic emotions such as anger, fear, or despair (Scheff 2003, 247, 254).

The specific way in which shame is connected to the individual’s relationship with itself and the social world means that, as Elspeth Probyn has emphasized, experiencing shame can bring about a heightened consciousness of one’s interests, insecurities, values, and aspirations. Feeling shame, in other words, always involves experiencing crucial aspects of one’s identity and one’s dependence on others. Shame therefore constitutes a vital bridge between the self and society (Probyn 2005, ix-x and 30). But shame is not only a social emotion that connects us back to our own values, it is also a heteronomous emotion. We feel shame as a result of “a failure to live up to norms, ideals, and standards that are primarily public”. Because of this focus on a (dominant) group’s norms, minorities, lower classes, and marginalized groups are more vulnerable to experiencing shame and to being victims of shame practices (Maibom 2010, 568 and 569).

This role of power relations in how shame operates plays a central role in the work of Cultural Studies scholar Sally Munt. Munt describes shame as “a socially constructed and historically contingent entity, system or psychic process that in turn constructs us as subjects” (Munt 2007, editor’s preface ix-x). She underlines that shame has a transformative potential and is in that sense performative. On the one hand, groups can be persistently stigmatized through shame within society. On the other, shame can be a powerful force in that it incites reactions against such shame practices. By turning the negative experience of shame into a positive feeling of uniting and coming into action, shame can provide groups with cultural and political agency. Munt connects shaming practices specifically to power structures when she asserts that “histories of violent domination and occupation are found frequently lurking behind these dynamics of shame, and the shame, although directly aimed at the minoritised group, also implicates the bestower” (Munt 2007, 2-3). The complexity of shame’s social dynamic can therefore only be fully understood if we acknowledge that shame is a relevant emotional factor on both the dominating and the marginalized side of exclusionary social mechanisms.

The rich body of literature on shame, then, gives us ample reasons to regard shame as a particularly strong force in history, a force that cannot only exert power over social groups but that can also make them aware of their own social attachments and normative attitudes, a force, furthermore, that connects those who are at the lower end of an established structure of domination with those who inhabit a superior position of (shaming) power. Munt also emphasizes the temporality of shame and comes up with a crucial distinction between short-term and long-term shame. Short-term shame is mostly individually experienced shame resulting from shameful behavior, for example, getting caught while doing something unjust and socially unaccepted can cause short-term shame. This kind of shame works correctively, as it triggers the subject of shame to change the shame-causing behavior. Because of this relatively easy solution, shame in these cases is only experienced briefly. Long-term shame is much more complex as it is the direct result of existing power structures and fundamentally questions the identity and moral standards of minority groups. Long-term shame, then, touches upon the foundation of human social existence. Because the behavior and actions of the group are disapproved of, the particular group becomes a social outcast and is placed outside of society. In that way, long-term shame can have far-reaching effects (Munt 2018, 4-8).

It is such long-term shame above all which should be taken seriously as a relevant factor in larger historical developments. Firstly, it points to strongly embedded power structures in society. Secondly, group stigmatization can be an extremely strong motivation for social action. Both aspects of long-term shame can expose, or give rise to, a strong desire for societal change. As long-term shame is persistent because of its deep embeddedness in society, a rigorous transformation is necessary to alter the status quo. If the shamed group takes matters into their own hands, comes into action against the shaming practice and succeeds, this can be accomplished. The new normative cultural framework arising from such successful social actions provides society with a new perspective on identity, culture, and morality. In that way, society can be fundamentally changed.

The role of shame in social action and historical change is certainly manifold, but two aspects in particular can be identified. On the one hand, shame functions as the key motivator for the shamed group to start political action. The collective consciousness of a shared experience of shame can produce a strong urge, as well as the means, to turn the imposed shame into pride. On the other hand, the contested group in power experiences a different kind of shame. If a substantial shift in the dominant normative framework happens, members of the dominant group can be accused of their – individual or collective – responsibility in stigmatizing the minority group in a way that starts to resonate with a broader public. As the criticized power structures tend to be deeply interwoven with a given culture, the shift in perspective necessary for members of the dominant group to acknowledge the “others’” viewpoint can itself trigger feelings of shame.2

The historical changes and accompanying waves of social movements and normative shifts that occurred from the middle of the twentieth century onwards in so-called Western societies could take on a different historical meaning if systematically viewed from this angle. As postcolonial thinkers such as Aimé Césaire have argued early on, the shock of the German colonial empire on European terrain entailed an, albeit immediately disavowed, recognition of similarly de-humanizing techniques underlying European colonialist policies in its respective overseas territories (Césaire 2000, 36f.). Maybe the reactions of postwar Germans as recorded by Saul Padover have to be seen as a specific variant of a moral and emotional reckoning that would ensue in many forms from both National Socialism and the postwar processes of decolonization. In his 1948 preface “Black Orpheus” to Léopold Senghor’s anthology of “new Negro and Malagasy poetry”, Jean-Paul Sartre evoked a collective white subject’s disconcerting shift in perspective when he wrote that “these poems give us shame […]. All those, colonist and accomplice, who open this book, will have the sensation of reading as though over another’s shoulder, words that were not intended for them” (quoted in Bewes 2011, 4).

Voices of the négritude movement, such as Césaire and Senghor, introduced a perspective to the European public which made it impossible for white readers to continue excluding the subjective experience of the formerly objectified Other. Sartre immediately grasped that a major consequence of such a shift would be the experience of shame connected with the realization of one’s position on the side of the oppressor. Meanwhile, black GIs’ participation in a war against Nazi Germany’s racist regime, and in the subsequent occupation of West-Germany, resulted in a different shift of perspective and heightened their consciousness of US society’s moral double standards when it came to race relations. In an ironic historical twist, African American soldiers came back from occupied Germany having experienced for the first time a “breath of freedom” compared with the racial segregation which would welcome them at home (Höhn and Klimke 2010).

The ensuing Civil Rights Movement demonstrates how the two different experiences of shame are intertwined in the way they can fuel fundamental societal change. From 1954 onwards, the Civil Rights Movement actively engaged in transforming what could be called an (externally imposed) African American “ancestral shame” (Probyn) – shame for one’s origin or descent – into pride. This process could build on decades of cultural work within the African American community that provided a different frame of reference for African American self-perception (Wall 2016). The transformation brought about by this movement ultimately influenced American society as a whole as well, since it provoked others to start acknowledging the African American experience and thus recognizing American racism as a shameful practice. The combination of the pride formed within the African American community and the shame about racist practices imposed on white Americans would eventually bring about significantly more equality and a new status quo.

The emotional dynamics of this strategy clearly inspired other social groups, such as, for instance, the Front de Libération du Québec (FLQ) – founded in 1963 to liberate French-speaking Québec (Koks 2017). In order to identify the Québécois cause with the Civil Rights Movement, the FLQ created a new Québécois identity around the figure of the so-called nègre blanc. Pierre Vallières, one of the founding members and leaders of the FLQ, declared that the Québécois were the “white niggers of America”, a statement he supported by explicitly comparing the Québécois movement to the Civil Rights Movement and French-African decolonization activism. The nègre blanc metaphor worked in three ways. First, it evoked collective shame and legitimized the struggle. The metaphor emphasized, dramatized and thereby emotionally intensified French-speaking Québecois’ collective experience of a structurally unjust political, economic, social and cultural position within British-Canada. This interpretation was then used to argue for the violent struggle of the FLQ and to help gain support within Québec society. Secondly, the metaphor also made it possible to refer to the Civil Rights Movement as a model for a successful revolution. Vallières requested the Québécois to follow the example of the Civil Rights Movement and to turn Québécois nègre blanc shame into pride. Thirdly, the metaphor helped to reveal specific British-Canadian practices (such as demanding that French Canadians “speak white”) as shameful.3 In all three ways the use of the metaphor invigorated a movement which ultimately achieved a better position of Québec within Canada. With the Charter of the French Language in 1975 and the informal status of independence, the struggle of the FLQ can justly be called successful.

The role of shame as a crucial emotional component driving collective human perceptions and actions, and thereby contributing to social change, cannot, of course, be empirically proven in the strict sense. Scholars interested in understanding the workings of modern democracies should nevertheless take the existing scholarship on shame seriously, not only to deepen their imagination of the human experience in the past, but also in order to systematically take the role of emotions into account in their analyses of political conflict and social change. This is particularly important in the context of the complex political struggles of twentieth-century democracies, which reverberate, and continue, to this day. As women, descendants of slaves, former colonial subjects, homosexuals and other marginalized groups entered the political and public arenas, they gave a voice and a language to both their experience of being dehumanized and their alternative view of their selves as politically active citizens. Shame, then, was collectively confronted and transformed by those new actors. This change, as a consequence, induced shame within many of those watching or listening from the perspective of the dominating social groups.

As Claude Lefort has emphasized, democracy opens the question of power without ever closing it again (Lefort 1988, 19). This also means that, as long as a liberal form of democracy exists, there can never be one group, one perspective, within unequal social relations, that exclusively occupies the political forum. The presence of radically different social experiences in the public arena is therefore a democratic necessity. This very presence, however, may inevitably produce reactions of shame in so far as it throws light on past or present acts of injustice, oppression, and violence that contradict the moral standards and self-images of those who, consciously or unconsciously, benefit from or participate in such acts. Saul Padover’s description of how Germans broke down as they looked into this kind of mirror is a stark reminder that it is not only the shame experienced by ostracized people which can be a threat to their existence, but that this can even be true for the shame of those exposed as having been complicit in the ostracism. One way to come out of this kind of shame is to disavow the past acts of exclusion and violence as part of one’s own collectivity.

In the introduction to the 1945 edition of her book Race, the anthropologist Ruth Benedict reminded her readers of how Nazi Germans used American segregation politics for their war propaganda by asking: “How could America object to her dogma when in her country Negroes even in the uniform of their country could be turned away from restaurants and from the movie houses?” Passionately arguing the case against racial discrimination, Benedict concludes her introduction by appealing directly to an exclusively white audience: “We of the White race, we of the Nordic race, must make it clear that we do not want the kind of cheap and arrogant superiority the racists promise us” (Benedict 1945, vii and xi).

The “we” Benedict addresses here in order to plead for an end of racist thinking is itself a racially defined we. Benedict apparently deemed it necessary to hold on to that racial “we” in her fight against the evil of a racism that legitimized oppression on the basis of the category of a “White” or “Nordic race” (and their Other). In doing so she proclaimed a new self-image of the “White race” itself as non-racist. In one and the same sentence she thus demanded an end of the racist paradigm by continuing to embrace the racial paradigm. This rhetorical strategy certainly illustrates the universal acceptance of the racial paradigm in 1945, the moment of publication (Guterl 2001). It could, however, also be read as an effect of the specter of shame. Benedict might have felt the need to explicitly position the “we” of the “White race” outside of the very paradigm of racial superiority that had constituted this “we”, precisely because the alternative would have been too shameful. The passage might thus serve as an early expression of what Gloria Wekker has called “white innocence” (Wekker 2017).

Shame can incite us to quickly assume a defensive position of moral purity or “innocence” and thus incite us to solely focus on protecting our self-image. Such a reaction is often accompanied by the denial of racism (or sexism etc.) as a shared experience of social groups. It thus blocks the necessary emotional work of opening up to others’ perspectives. In other words, shame can impede the difficult work of actually bringing the different experiences expressed in the democratic arena into conversation with each other instead of their mere articulation against each other. Studying up close the role of shame in the political struggles of twentieth-century democracies might therefore generate insights that can contribute directly to the quality of current political debates.

The Problem and Possibility of Unashamed Citizenship: Jill Locke and Friedrich Nietzsche

Can we be without shame? As self-conscious beings, it seems unavoidable that we, at one time or another, and for some more frequent than others, will experience the emotion of shame. Ambushed by reddened cheeks and an intense desire to hide oneself, shame usually occurs when we have the feeling that we have failed for an actual or internalised audience, holding certain norms and values that we care about. Either laughed at or called out for acting in a shameful manner, we feel singled out for not fitting in, condemned for doing something morally corrupt, or humiliated for being odd. Either this actually happens or we imagine it happening, which can lead to social ostracism, gelotophobia, or other shame-bound anxieties (Titze and Kühn 2014). While feelings of guilt leave a person with a negative self-regard qua something she has done or has failed to do, shame goes beyond feeling bad about one’s actions. Following Jennifer Manion and Jill Locke, I conceptualise shame as a negative global assessment of the self, including a sense of existential failure (Locke 2007, 14; Locke 2016, 18; Manion 2003, 21). Due to this grand scope, shame tends to linger on for a period of time, and is much harder to get rid of than instantaneous embarrassment.

Although shame is usually conceptualized as a moral emotion, we must not forget that it is too, like anger, a political emotion: one is only ashamed in front of the community one desires to be part of (Probyn 2005, ix-viii, 39; cf. Sedgwick and Frank 1995, 496-522).1 Likewise, the potential to be shamed by others is dependent on the members whose judgment one cares about and what they see as reason for ridicule or condemnation. However, in the shame-infused language that continues to dominate much of the political landscape, minorities are often shamed for not adhering to dominant behavioural patterns with its attached value judgments. And while these people do not necessarily share or agree with the custom codes of conduct – and although they might predominantly identify themselves with certain sub-groups – the continuous experience of being shamed by other members of the society they live in is extremely damaging and worrisome. Even though it is said that a healthy sense of shame is beneficial to a democratic society in order to keep its members in check, there is a danger in restricting one’s members in their modes of existing (Locke 2016, 9).

While it has been argued that the moral maturity of an agent lies in the setting of her personal moral standards, which only causes her to feel shame if she fails by her own standards, I argue that such an isolated view fails to take into account the social and political aspects of shame (Calhoun 2004, 128-132; cf. O’Hear 1976-77; Kekes 1988; Aldrich 1939).2 Mature feelings of shame may indeed include a focus on how one appears in one’s own eyes, but I find it hard to believe that this gaze can be detached from its social environment. And while one can try choosing what one finds to be good reasons for being ashamed, i.e. what community one wants to be a part of, I argue that it is of equal, but perhaps even more importance to think how one can be and liveunapologetically in a society whose dominant-belief system might be hostile to non-conformist ways of being. But how do we rid ourselves of shame? How can one free oneself from the patronizing and discriminatingshame spread by a dominant discourse that, through practices of shaming, tries to exclude ways of living that divert from custom? And does this means that we become insensitive to shame altogether?

In the following I will use Jill Locke’s distinction between shamelessness and being unashamed for understanding how something like moral maturity can be united with being without shame. Secondly, I will consider Nietzsche’s critique of democracy and his concept of the Übermensch in its political aspects, as I argue that becoming unashamed can be seen as an important part of its conceptualization – and is paired with the metaphor of becoming a child. While bringing these two authors together might seem unusual or even arbitrary, I argue that both can inform each other and ultimately help us to conceptualise the problem and possibility of unashamed citizenship in democratic societies.

The death of shame and unashamed citizenship  

In Democracy and the Death of Shame, political theorist Jill Locke offers a genealogical account of the Lament that Shame is Dead. As she argues, the current lamentation of the lack of shame in democratic society is not a new phenomenon. Rather, this narrative seems to fit into a long-existing lament that can be seen as “a nostalgic story of an imagined past that represents a longing for a mythical place and time when shame secured and regulated social life” (Locke 2016, 18).3 As Locke argues, the Lament operates as a narrative of civilizational decline that expresses, above all, a fear of self-fashioning and autonomous subjects who threaten to disturb the status quo and wreak havoc on the social order. Much of this lamentation can be read as a fantasy of what shame supposedly once secured: social regulation and lubrication across difference(s) (Locke 2016, 9). As such, The Lament can be seen as a highly normative and panicked reaction in sight of unrestrained self-fashioning and self-expression, which acts as ideology, speech act and shaming practice all at once (Locke 2016, 11-3; 21).

Importantly, claiming that shame is dead – simply because changes in morality and beyond are occurring – obscures and shames those who investigate and potentially negate the commonly considered reasons for shame. But before we move on to Locke’s call for unashamed citizenship, we must however first understand what the accusation of shamelessness comprises of. As Locke argues, it is important that we do not mistake shameful behaviour with shamelessness. While doing something shameful does violate a largely agreed upon code of conduct, it recognises the ways one is meant to behave. Shameful behaviour is therefore not really seen as a threat, because it recognises the social order even in its transgression.

The shameless, on the other hand, wreak havoc on societal norms: “the shameless person flaunts the requirement of shame and is therefore constituted as a threat to the social order” (Locke 2016, 20). Characterised as nonreflective and uncivilised beings who need constraint of their urges and passions, the shameless disturb and threaten civilisation by ignoring and overriding the boundaries of what is considered as publicly and politically acceptable. They do not care that they have violated social regulations – or so it is argued.

In this sense, the blame of shamelessness can be seen as an accusation of an underdeveloped, unrecognised or rejected sense of shame, and therefore as a form of moral immaturity. Those who are called shameless are blamed for their lack of reflection, of judgment, and of regard for other beings, meanwhile continuously placing their own needs above those of others. And while we can argue that an actual immature person (i.e. a child) without shame simply does not feel shame yet, it is the shameless adult who refuses to recognise her shame, and instead rejects it, represses it or pins it on someone else – and is, in turn, shamed for it by society (cf. Warner 1999, 3).

While the Lament judges and shames those who supposedly take their democratic freedom too far – missing the supposed civilised brake of shame in their behaviour –it is exactly in these moments, according to Locke, that radical democratic scepticism comes to the surface.4 As the Lament singles out shameless people as threats to the political order, it negates the political protest of these citizens – formal or not – in order to preserve the status quo. Or to put it differently, as the Lament can be seen as a disciplining and excluding device, it reacts to the increase of unashamed self-fashioning and self-expression enacted in the name of egalitarian ideals. In putting forward shame as a regulative ideal, the accusations of shamelessness thus obscure political actions that self-consciously disavow the terms of shame, reimaging and renegotiating the terms of what counts as civic practice, and even who counts as a citizen (Locke 2016, 20).

In order to take seriously the critique of these protesting citizens, Locke has argued for unashamed citizenship that is to be distinguished from shamelessness, and must therefore be conceptualised by itself. While shamelessness is the accusation of having no shame at all, Locke argues that unashamed citizenship emerges from within the experience of shame, which it names and politicises in order to activate a set of political demands and practices (Locke 2016, 37). The unashamed knows the sense of shame, but strives to overcome the negative effects it has on her. Instead of withdrawing from public life, she uses her shame to open up the political sphere. The acts of unashamed citizenship can and must therefore be seen as a radical political activity, done by courageous and unapologetic people who challenge the virtue and value of shame (Locke 2016, 11-2). Being unashamed must therefore not be seen as a childish negligence of value-judgments or self-reflection, because it does not duck away from feelings of negative self-assessment. Rather, it is a conscious and self-reflexive protest against the reasons that they are felt in the first place. To be and become unashamed means to look one’s shame in the eye, to see it and to name it – and by doing so, creating the possibility for overcoming it.

Becoming unashamed: Nietzsche on shame and the problem of democracy

With Locke, we can see the resistance to, but also the importance of, forms of unashamed citizenship. However, we must ask: how does one become unashamed? How does one lose those self-lacerating value judgments that, in the first instance, cause a retreat rather than a resistance to social order? Although Friedrich Nietzsche is more commonly seen as an agent provocateur than as a political philosopher, I argue that his work is helpful to understand how self-overcoming is, as I think, crucial for becoming unashamed. Moreover, his critique of democracy alerts us to one of the more difficult dynamics of the thought and propagation of moral and political equality. Due to lack of space, I have to limit most close-reading of Nietzsche’s hesitant and hostile remarks on democracy, even though this would be important for this discussion (cf. Siemens 2009). I will instead focus on three moments from the period 1880-1884 which I think are relevant for his thoughts on democracy and shame.

Following Daniel Conway and Herman Siemens, I argue that Nietzsche, in his approach to politics, is looking for the ancient or “founding question”: what ought humankind to become (Conway 1997, 2-3; Siemens 2009, 21)? Contra elitist readings where Nietzsche would only care for the Few, only for those “exceptional beings” whom he calls free spirits, I read his critique of the herd and herd-mentality as an attack on egalitarianism that, as Nietzsche argues, may ultimately lead to uniformity and the exclusion of difference (Siemens 2009, 25-7; cf. WS 292, BGE 242). Concerned with the future of all of humankind, Nietzsche feared that in its levelling tendencies, democracy would lead to a tyranny of the mob without hope for emancipation (cf. BGE 202). For this reason, he increasingly turned to those excluded by society – or as we might say, the shameless outsiders that live life on their own terms.

To locate his critique on democracy, I here focus on an 1880 Nachlass note that Siemens has considered as “the pivotal text” in Nietzsche’s thinking on democracy (Siemens 2009, 25-6).5 From here, we can see a definite switch from Nietzsche’s early and more hopeful account in Human, All Too Human towards a pessimistic outlook for the possibility and prosperity of difference in democratic society, that was eventually radicalised in Beyond Good and Evil (cf. Ansell-Pearson 1994, 90-5).6

The more feeling of unity with one’s fellow human gains the upper hand, the more feelings are made uniform, the more they will perceive all difference as immoral. In this way, the sand of humanity necessarily comes into being: all very similar, very small, very round, very accommodating, very boring. Christianity and democracy have done the most to drive humanity along the path towards sand. A small, weak, glowing feeling of contentment equally distributed among all […] would that be the last image humanity could offer? (NL 1880 KSA 9:3 [98])

In their propagation of unity and equality (very similar, very small, very boring), Nietzsche here points out, Christian religion and democratic polity have been practicing a systematic exclusion of difference, by perceiving being different as immoral. The negative value judgment that is attached to this plurality is important, because it will be exactly in those who are considered as disobeying ruling morality in whom Nietzsche will put his hope (cf. BGE 26, 242, 258, 268). Or, said differently, Nietzsche wants to argue for a new chapter for humankind, a “new image” for humanity, urging all singular individuals to:

[…] be different from all others, and take pleasure in being different from the other; the crudest monsters have certainly been eradicated under the prevailing regime of morality thus far – that was its task; but we do not wish to live on thoughtlessly under a regime in the face of wild beasts. (NL 1880 KSA 9:3 [98])

For the progress and development of humankind, then, Nietzsche wants us to be different from all others and take joy in this plurality. While most of the “crudest monsters”, or most radical individuals, have already been eradicated in the name of morality – that was its task in its equalizing tendency – Nietzsche wants the “wild beasts” to no longer thoughtlessly succumb to the status quo of the dominant moral regime.

If we now approach this problem of democracy from the perspective of shame, we can see how shaming practices are used to exclude those who are different by considering them to be immoral (and not just seen to be doing immoral things). Shaming them into uniformity, those who practice common morality regulate ways of living that are deemed acceptable in society. Here I would suggest a parallel to the work of Locke. Those who are shamed for not adhering to common morality are the ones singled out for being shameless. As we saw, this accusation fits into a lament about taking one’s personal autonomy to live freely too far, no longer fitting into the parameters that are set up for public life and politics. But as Locke too argued, this “shamelessness” is a fearful cry in sight of radical political action engaged in and through democratic scepticism about equality and plurality.

While I will come back to the problem of egalitarianism with regard to Locke and Nietzsche, I want to consider the following aphorisms in The Gay Science to argue that Nietzsche is, like Locke, concerned with unashamed citizenship.

Whom do you call bad?  — Those who always want to put to shame.

What do you consider most humane? — To spare someone shame.

What is the seal of liberation? — No longer being ashamed of oneself. (GS 273-5)

As we can see here, Nietzsche considers no longer being ashamed of oneself as the seal of liberation. Moreover, he condemns “those who always want to put to shame”, or, those who continuously engage in practices of shaming. Exactly because through shame we promote a specific set of morals, shame is hurtful to the openness needed for plural ways of living; thus the most humanething to do – and I would add, for the sake of humanity – is to spare someone shame. And while Nietzsche can also be seen as lamenting the lack of shame in his day, I argue that most of his complaints rather have to do with epistemological modesty and his unfortunate misogyny, than with moral feelings of disgrace (cf. Schneider 1977; Speirs 2013).7

But how does one become unashamed of oneself? If we take Nietzsche’s conception of the Übermensch as the liberated one through self-overcoming, it must be stressed that this project has at least two dimensions. That is to say, the Übermensch does not only refer to the individual project of continuous self-overcoming, but is also committed to the idea of striving towards collective enhancement (i.e. the future of all humankind) (cf. Früchtl 2009, 182-90). From this it follows that the exceptional individuals that Nietzsche praised do not function as exclusive beneficiaries, but as “the great experimenters” which are only key elements in the general aim of perfecting human kind as a whole (cf. Siemens 2009, 30).

It is in Thus Spoke Zarathustra that Nietzsche, through Zarathustra’s teachings, argues for three stages that one has to go through in order to liberate oneself (Z I, 1) – which we can see as the three stages needed for self-overcoming, or for the process of the Übermensch. In the metaphorical style that is characteristic of the book, Nietzsche describes the first step as becoming a camel: one deserts from the herd, while loading oneself with one’s own weight of existence. As a camel, one runs off into the desert, i.e. solitude, where the second transformation must take place: one becomes a lion. As this lion wants to “capture freedom and be lord in its own desert” (Z I, 1) – as it struggles with the great dragon of Thou Shalt, i.e. common views of morality, in order to attain self-mastery. In its attempt to achieve self-legislation, and in order to say “I will” and free itself from external views of moral values and social obligations, the Lion learns to say its ownNo. However, it is unable to create for itself, and therefore, a third transformation needs to take place: the lion has to become a child. “The child is innocence and forgetfulness, a new beginning, a game, a self-propelling wheel, a first motion, a sacred Yes” (Z I, 1). For Nietzsche, this Yes is needed for the “game of creation”; the affirming of one’s own life, and of willing one’s own will.

That Nietzsche uses the image of the child in its negation of common morality must not be mistaken for a propagation of having no sense for morality at all; indeed, he is continuously arguing for finding out what is important to us, to figure out where one’s own moral judgements come from and what they can tell us about ourselves and others.8 The child is, thus, at least a doublemetaphorical image: it is not about gaining (moral) immaturity, but about not being bound or defined by socially standardised conducts. Moreover, linking this to the problem of shame, as a child has not yet developed the full sensibilities for shame, she still makes her choices with reverence to herself and what she wants, and is not yet restricted by potential prospects of shame. Becoming a child then means to become without shame; it is becoming unashamed of oneself.

To see that Nietzsche indeed links becoming a child with becoming without shame and self-overcoming, we can have a look at the aphorism Of the Stillest Hour, where Zarathustra, in deep contemplation, engages with his own voiceless thoughts:

‘O Zarathustra, you shall go as a shadow of that which must come: thus you will command and commanding lead the way.’ And I answered: ‘I am ashamed.’

Then again something said to me voicelessly: ‘You must yet become a child and without shame [ohne Scham]. ‘the pride of youth is still in you, you have become young late: but he who wants to become a child must overcome even his youth.’ (Z II, 22)

As we see here, Zarathustra commands himself that he must become a child and become without shame. Importantly, becoming a child means even overcoming one’s own youth – thus, not a return to overt childishness or youthful pride, but a consciously chosen boldness in life that chooses and affirms itself.

As Nietzsche-Zarathustra argues that he would rather “see shameless ones [den Schamlosen], than those with distorted eyes of their shame and devotion” (Z, II 4), we should be careful to see that Nietzsche here too, at least to some extent, falls into a lamentation of shamelessness. However, I argue that the strand of becoming unashamed of oneself is a stronger one that should not be ignored – also because, as we can see, Nietzsche would rather have someone without any kind of shame, than full of shame and devotion.

I came to my truth by diverse paths and diverse ways: it was not upon a single ladder that I climbed to the height where my eyes survey my distances. […]

All my progress has been an attempting and a questioning – and truly, one has to learn how to answer such questioning! That however – is to my taste:

Not good taste, not bad taste, but my taste, which I no longer conceal and of which I am no longer ashamed.

‘This – is now my way: where is yours?’ Thus I answered those who asked me ‘the way.’ For the way – does not exist! (Z III, 11)

Nietzsche wants us to be unashamed of our own way, which as he argues is unlike that of anyone else (for the way, or the universalised standard that would fit anyone right, does not exist). But in order to get to know our way – and, importantly, in order to be able to affirm it – we must learn how to judge for ourselves, by gaining both self-knowledge and the ability or strength to say no to that which is commonly accepted, simply because it is the largely agreed upon moral code.

Conclusion: shame and plurality

As I have tried to argue, both Locke and Nietzsche are occupied with the problem of pluralism and shame in democracy. Clear for both is that shame, in its political dimensions, works as a regulative ideal of how one should go about one’s public life and posits certain normative ideas on how to behave. This is a problem for societies that want to embrace plurality and be hospitable to different styles or ways of living. However, it is interesting to see that Locke argues for unashamed citizenship in the name of egalitarian ideals,while Nietzsche was sceptical about the possibility of genuine (unashamed) plurality in democratic society exactly because of its egalitarianism, which he argued ultimately leads to uniformity. However, as Nietzsche stays (perhaps purposively) unclear as to how his exceptional outsiders relate to democracy, or indeed as to what kind of community would have his full support, there are perhaps other authors who are more helpful in regard to this problem.9 But, as I have tried to show, what Nietzsche does help us to consider is how being unashamed emerges from within the experience of shame, as a self-reflective moment of both protest and affirmation. This is not an immature rejection of shame, but a consciously working through it and a decision to not accept it – or as Locke would say, a radical political activity, done by courageous and unapologetic people.

Beyond the Echo-chamber: An Interview with Hartmut Rosa on Resonance and Alienation

“If acceleration is the problem, then resonance might be the solution.” This is the shortest possible summary provided in the first line of the 800-page book Resonanz. Eine Soziologie der Weltbeziehung (2016). The book is the latest stage and logical next step in the analysis and critique of modernity by the German sociologist Hartmut Rosa, which started with the equally ambitious and encompassing book Beschleunigung. Die Veränderung der Zeitstrukturen in der Moderne (2005).1 There, Rosa dissects modernity as a process of acceleration, comprising the three dimensions of technical acceleration, acceleration of social change, and acceleration of the pace of life. Although his analysis is largely in line with Paul Virilio’s “dromology” and David Harvey’s analysis of modernity as “time-space compression”, the underlying question and concern of Rosa is somewhat different. While Virilio seems to aim mainly at a cultural critique, and Harvey at an analysis of capitalism as a system, Rosa is first and foremost interested in the question of the good life. Like the earlier generations of the Frankfurt school, Horkheimer and Adorno and, with qualifications, Habermas, he considers modernity in terms of a broken promise: the very technology and social revolutions that were supposed to lead to an increase in autonomy are now becoming increasingly oppressive. In Alienation and Acceleration (2010) he even calls acceleration a totalitarian process, because it entails all aspects of our personal and social lives, and is almost impossible to resist, escape or criticize. Rosa writes: “The powers of acceleration no longer are experienced as a liberating force, but as an actually enslaving pressure instead” (Rosa 2010, 80). As the book’s title already suggests, Rosa considers acceleration as the primary contemporary source of alienation, along the three axes famously described by Marx in the fragment on “Estranged Labour”: alienation of people from themselves, from their fellow human beings, and from the world of things. While we feel the constant pressure of having to do more in less time, there also seems to be a shared feeling of a loss of control over our own life and the world, and therefore of losing contact with it.

Rosa’s latest book continues on the path of Alienation and Acceleration. For the concept of “alienation”, which has a long tradition in modern philosophy and was recently taken up again by Axel Honneth and Rahel Jaeggi (2016), is an inherently problematic category. The concept implies that you are alienated from something, where this something has often been associated with a conception of “true” humanity or authentic life, be it Rousseau’s noble savage, early Marx’s “species being”, or Heidegger’s Eigentlichkeit. Such conceptions of authenticity can easily become arbitrary or oppressive even, for who is the philosopher or critical theorist to decide whose life is “authentic” and whose isn’t? Then again, Rosa argues, if we drop the conception of the good life altogether, the concept of alienation also becomes empty; it then risks becoming a mere label for things we don’t like.

This is why in Resonanz Rosa sets out to analyse “resonance” as alienation’s opposite, thus also aiming at a better understanding of alienation as well as a conceptual tool with which to criticize it. Though not so much itself a conception of the good life, resonance according to Rosa lies at the basis of all conceptions of the good life. It refers to a relation between subject and world (Weltbeziehung) characterized by reciprocity and mutual transformation: the subject’s experience of some other calling upon it which requires understanding or answering, but that also has the ability to change the subject. Resonance, as Rosa is quick to add, is not a mere (subjective) experience belonging to the subject; he emphatically refers to the relation between subject and world, be it a relation between subjects, between the subject and object, or even of the subject to its own body. Not surprisingly, and in line with the first generation of the Frankfurt School, art is for Rosa an exemplary place for, and medium of, such relations (although religion and nature are also important examples), and indeed functions as a vestige as world-relations become increasingly alienated. Alienation, then, is precisely the impossibility or inability to enter into a relation with the other. Indeed, all problems or “social pathologies” of modernity according to Rosa come down to this: that we are unable to form a meaningful relationship of mutual understanding and interaction, either with our material surroundings (e.g. in the case of labour) or with fellow human beings.

For Rosa, as a critical theorist, the concept of resonance functions on three levels. In the first place there seems to be an anthropological undercurrent, in which resonance describes what makes us human; the first chapters of his study deal with such basic animal and human behaviours as breathing, eating and drinking, speaking and glancing, laughing, crying and love-making, all of which entail relationships of resonance. Secondly, resonance functions as a theory of modernization. In line with Charles Taylor, Rosa argues that modernity is a process in which the “self” becomes less porous, hence increasingly closed off from the world. At the same time, however, Rosa also considers modernity as a historical period of increased “sensibility for resonance” (Resonanzsensibilität): since resonance is not an “echo chamber” but a relation of questioning and answering, the subject needs relative autonomy in order to enter into meaningful relationships with the other. The promise of modernity was precisely this, “that we could move out into the world to find a place that speaks and alludes to us, where we can feel at home and that we would be able make our own” (Rosa 2016, 599). Finally, the concept of resonance is, as we already noted, a critical tool, providing a framework for criticizing both capitalist competition as a source of alienation, as well as false solutions and claims to authenticity, be it some fully individualized attempt at mindfulness, or populist discourses of social and cultural homogenization.

In January this year Rosa visited Utrecht for a seminar dedicated to his book, titled How to Slow Down Life without Stagnating Society. Resonance in an Accelerating World, organized by the University of Humanistic Studies (UvH). In advance of this seminar, Krisis talked to Rosa about social acceleration, alienation and resonance, and the role of art in an accelerating world.2

1. Acceleration

Thijs Lijster/Robin Celikates: You have written extensively about social acceleration, and you convincingly link technological innovation, social change and the acceleration of personal/individual tempo. With regard to the latter, however, we are wondering to what extent the kinds of problems or “pathologies” you are describing are happening on a global scale, and to what extent they are specific issues of the West or, to put it somewhat more bluntly, “first world problems”. Capitalism, to be sure, affects people all over the globe, but it doesn’t affect all of them in the same way, does it? What space does your theory allow for what is often called “die Gleichzeitigkeit des Ungleichzeitigen” (the simultaneity of the non-simultaneous)?

Hartmut Rosa:It is interesting that you mention “die Gleichzeitigkeit des Ungleichzeitigen”, which is a phrase made famous by Koselleck, for this phrase already suggests a kind of direction of history: it assumes you have things that belong to an earlier age and things that belong to a later age. What I’m trying to say is that we’ve reached the end of this idea of history moving forward, which means that you no longer have the simultaneity of the non-simultaneous, but you just have differences. So, some people are under a lot of time pressure while others are not.

Your question has many layers. One has to do with class: people always ask whether the speeding up of life – the increase in the pace of life – is the same for all layers of society. And the other question is, of course, on the global scale: is it the same for all parts of the world? To the second question, I would actually say: yes, very much so, whenever you have processes of modernization. Acceleration basically is at the heart of modernization. For example, I just spent a longer time in China and there you see it almost like crazy. You have this logic of competition and of speeding up, so the people there know immediately what I am talking about. And it is not just on the scale of a small elite; it is very comprehensive. And indeed, it is the same in Korea, Japan, Brazil and other places in Latin America. Of course, there are some places, one would think of some regions in Africa, where this change in temporal structures is not very widespread, and which I therefore call “oases”, where these forces of acceleration are not yet taking hold. So I would say acceleration is a global phenomenon: wherever you have these processes of globalization or modernization you find acceleration. You will not always find individualization, divisions of labour, or democratization, and sometimes these processes are not even clearly capitalist, but the change in temporal structures is modernity’s most widespread feature.

Of course, there are always segments of the population- and this varies in different countries – which do not really struggle with the shortage of time. My claim is that when you look at the social strata, you find three different layers. The first, which you could call the elites but which is actually the middle class, has completely internalized this logic of speeding up. So: saving time is saving money. It is the logic of competition, in particular, that they have internalized, and competition is always related to temporality: “time is scarce, don’t waste it”. For the second layer, further down the social ladder, time pressure is not so much internalized, but coming from the outside. Of course, that is true for most conditions of labour: shop floors in companies, construction sites, care industries, etc. The people working there are always short on time but usually it is someone else – the boss or the clock – who creates the pressure, and it is not so much coming from the inside.

TL/RC: People have to do more in less time?

HR: Yes, always, and this is really true almost everywhere. Recently I looked into truck drivers. They are told: “you have to deliver your load in a certain time, we don’t care how you do it.” So, you either go too fast and you have to pay for the speeding ticket or you take the Autobahn but then you have to pay for the tolls, or you ignore the mandatory resting periods, otherwise it is a totally impossible task. It makes me angry when colleagues claim: “Rosa is only describing the academic elites.” I think someone who says that has no idea about empirical reality and I would actually claim that it is indeed almost the same all over the world.

Nevertheless, then you have a third segment of the population, I call them “forcefully excluded” or “forcefully decelerated”. If you are unemployed or so, then you might have a lot of time on your hands, but even that is not always true. It will depend on what you do for a living, whether you’re sick or if you’re depressed, etc. But this kind of forceful or enforced deceleration is a kind of devaluation of the time you have then. The time you have is without any value and the problem is that even then you feel the pressure of acceleration, because you feel like you are lagging behind more and more, and that it is impossible to catch up. So this is why I claim that acceleration is an almost totalitarian force, you feel the pressure wherever you are.

The distinction I’ve discussed, between the internalization of time pressure and time pressure as a force from the outside also raises interesting questions as to who has more resources to resist. Probably, you will find more possibilities and power to resist if the pressure comes from the outside. Once it is completely internalized you are lost.

TL/RC: What is your take on the more positive accounts of acceleration that have been put forward, for instance, by Deleuze and Guattari, who propose that we should accelerate even more, and enjoy acceleration. Or the #Accelerate manifesto, by Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek, who argue that we should accelerate further in order to let capitalism crash against its own limits. In any case, acceleration in social and cultural theory has always had a rather ambiguous sense, of both alienating and liberating. Is there any “jouissance” of acceleration possible in your view?

HR: In my main book on social acceleration I first of all wanted to identify the change in temporal structure that accompanied modernity. There wasn’t really a systematic account of it. What I wanted to do was to analyze what is accelerating and what is not, and what might be the consequences of it. Looking to these consequences, I was not so optimistic about them. Nevertheless, I did not say that speed per se is bad, and I didn’t say that slowness is good; certainly not the latter. I do share with the accelerationists the idea that just being nostalgic about the past would be a mistake, because this leads you very quickly to the idea that the past was much better and that’s of course not the case. Today you sometimes find a nostalgia for the Fordist period, while this period was of course the most alienated age ever. So I agree that speed per se is not the problem.

TL/RC: Are you thinking of Richard Sennett, or would you rather not mention names?

HR: Yes, I was thinking about Richard Sennett, though I like his work very much. I very much liked the book on craftsmanship, for instance, because I think he has a very strong sense there of resonance with regard to work. Nevertheless, when you read people like Sennett or Zygmunt Bauman (and there are a lot of German sociologists too) and their critique of the postmodern condition, it all of a sudden sounds like the past was a great time.

I don’t think speed per se is the problem, but I also don’t want to just turn it around and say: well if you cannot do anything against it then let’s embrace it. That is not a sensible stance for me. What I dislike about the accelerationists is that they seem to give in and they say: “since we cannot do anything about it let’s just get on top of the movement”. They always claim that something good can come out of it, but I think that they are totally lacking the yardsticks of how to judge the consequences. Turning the perspective around doesn’t solve anything. In my book I basically say: indeed, speed is not per se bad, but it is bad when it leads to alienation. So, the question for me would be: what do the accelerationists do with this?

TL/RC: Perhaps some forms of alienation might not be bad. In Inventing the Future Srnicek and Williams argue in favour of total automation; this would in some sense be alienation, because it puts us even further from daily activities of the reproduction of life, but it also allows a lot of freedom to do other things.

HR: But this has always been the promise of modernization and acceleration, that it will eventually give us freedom, but there has been a betrayal on both ends. On the one hand, it didn’t give us freedom: you can see the exact opposite. I really insist on that. What I try to work out is a certain temporal logic, one that has a lot to do with the logic of competition, and that I call “dynamic stabilization”. That is really the core of my analysis of modernity. We can only keep what we have – both on an individual and collective level – if we increase speed and productivity and so on. And this increase does not fall from the sky: we have to do it ourselves. Every year we have to run a bit faster to keep what we have. So, the idea that this will eventually give us freedom is just wrong under the present conditions. If one does not see that then it means being blind to what happened the last 200 years.

It’s not that we’re just enslaved. I do think the liberating potential is there, but in this logic of dynamic stabilization there is a shift in the balance between the liberating aspects and the enslaving aspects. The promise of modernity has always been progress: let’s increase production, let’s come up with new innovative technologies, let’s speed up and so on, in order to reach some kind of Golden Age. But today most people no longer perceive this acceleration as progress: you have to run faster, but not to get somewhere, but to keep what you have. I think this horizon has become more and more pale; now the impression is that we have to speed up otherwise we will have much more unemployment.

TL/RC: Wasn’t it the case that up until a certain point in time, at least in the Western world, we were working less and less?

HR:You’re right, and that is basically also what I write. But now the increase in freedom, also what you could call progress, in the end will be sucked up again. I argue that we have to invest more and more psychological energy, political energy and material energy (resources) into the logic of mobilizing the world.

 You see this very clearly with our young people. In the age that you were referring to, when freedom was increasing, so up until the 1970s, when you asked young people: “what do you want to do?” they would talk about their dreams, or their aspirations, or their ideas. Now this has turned around. They ask: “what can I do in order to successfully compete?” It is no longer about developing your own perspective but it is about fitting in.

I’ve noticed this myself too. For some years I’ve worked with young people, just before their matura [secondary school exit exam, TL & RC], and each year we are talking about what they are going to do next. I think there has been a shift from about 20 years ago, where they would say “I want to do philosophy” or so, and now they come and ask: “what could I do if I study philosophy?” All our capacities, all our energies, all our dreams are fitted into the logic of increasing productivity. As long as the accelerationists do not see that, I find that really bad.

On one other point I would agree with them, namely that I think we are not at the end of the logic of acceleration, not in the least. Paul Virilio has said this a long time ago, and was really visionary in this respect, that we are on the verge of a fusion between computer technologies and bodies – biotechnology and computer technologies. With this, we can speed up our brains and our interactions probably much more. What I think we definitely need is an idea of “the good life”, and that is what I try to provide.

TL/RC:Coming back to what you said earlier, about modernity’s promise of progress, we were wondering what the implications would be of your theory for what we traditionally consider leftist politics? After all, we traditionally make the distinction between the “progressive” left and the “conservative” right. But what does “progressive” mean once progress itself is experienced as catastrophe, to borrow a phrase from Walter Benjamin? And how would you see the contemporary crisis of the left, or of “progressive politics” in general in this light?

HR:The problem is that “progressive” has always been a very ambivalent term, covering a lot of things. On the one hand, of course, it has referred to technological development: progress in science and technology and so on. On the other, it refers to the emancipatory power, or the emancipatory ideals, which are probably more important when you think of the political left. The idea of progress in the latter sense was really about giving or having more autonomy: emancipating individuals so that they are liberated from traditional powers which have been repressive, like the Church, like the patriarchal system, but also clear exploitative systems. There has been progress historically right up to probably our present age in many aspects, but I think there are two problems with this idea.

The one thing is that this kind of formal autonomy has been counterbalanced by the logic of competition, which we were just describing. So, there is a loss as well: that people gain autonomy on the one hand, but that they lose it, on the other hand, because of the logic of capitalist competition. The other problem, and you see this also in the contemporary political crisis, is that there is a longing for something other than autonomy, for a kind of reconnection. That is why I came up with this idea of resonance: being connected to the world in a certain sense does not just mean: I want to decide for myself. Even progressive leftists define autonomy as living according to self-given rules and principles, and of course they have a sense that these self-given rules and principles should be intersubjectively discussed and so on, but nevertheless it is principles and rules. But I think that the good life does not mean that I live according to my principles; people feel the least alienated when they are overwhelmed by something. Adorno had a very strong sense of this, or think of Latour who’s talking about the feeling that you are called upon, and you answer. This kind of connection has to do with being affected and feeling self-efficacious, i.e. experiencing one’s ability to achieve things. This is more than just autonomy.

I believe we have a kind of crisis of autonomy, particularly when it concerns consumer autonomy. So, one problem is that the formal or political autonomy, which we did historically realize, is sucked up by the logic of speed and competition. The other problem is that autonomy is not sufficient; it is only one side of a good life. There is a double crisis on the left, which is very problematic. Whenever you raise leftist ideas, it is still the case that people ask you: “what, do you want to go back to the kind of state socialism which we had in the past?” and if you then of course say “no” and then that’s it, right? What the left is lacking is a vision of what the world could be like.

TL/RC: So, the concept of resonance for you is also a political category?

HR:It is definitely a political category and I cannot emphasize this enough because it is often misread as an individualistic notion. The book is probably too long, but what I try to say repeatedly is that resonance is not just about a subjective stance towards the world, that is why it is different from the Achtsamkeit or the mindfulness movement and so on. I’m not saying that if you are in the right mindset, that everything is fine. Resonance is a two-way relationship, so it depends on what you relate to, a mode of being in the world. And this is not up to individuals to decide. So, I really want to turn it into a political category and also an almost institutional yardstick: how should institutions be established?

My take – which I share with Adorno and Horkheimer and the older critical theorists – is that our whole mode of being in the world, of relating to the world, is, I would almost say, screwed. We have a very instrumental relation to the world. Max Scheler, followed in this by Marcuse, called modernity the Promethean stance. The world becomes a point of aggression: I want to explore it scientifically, I want to control it technologically, I want to rule it by law and so on. It is relating to the world in order to make it verfügbar – I don’t really have a good word for it in English – to make it controllable, predictable and so on. This has to change. But this way in which we relate to the world, the way we are set in the world, is not an individual issue, it is a deeply political category.

TL/RC: You are making a clear link between technological innovations on the one hand, and social acceleration. In the same way, since the nineteenth century, all kinds of artistic innovations have been linked to revolutionary politics. For certain moments in time, they even had this kind of alliance in which artistic and political vanguards together would attack the status quo. But do you think these are the same kinds of novelty or innovation? Is innovation in the arts the same as in revolutionary politics, or for that matter, in the succession of innovative commodities or technologies? And, related to that question, do you think notions such as “the new” (or related concepts such as creativity and so forth) are still of value in contemporary artistic discourses?

HR:There are two distinctions that to me seem important to make. One is that between technological and social progress. When you today talk with young people about the future it is very interesting that they think of it in technological terms: artificial intelligence, what will become possible to do and so on. That has changed a lot in comparison to the 1970s or 80s, when young people thought about the future in more political terms: let’s shape the future politically! So there has been a division in how we think about novelty, with a still unbroken belief in – and this is not only a belief but also a fact – the expansion of our technological capacities. We peer deeper into the universe with satellites and deeper into matter and we are more capable of controlling it, so innovation there can be clearly recognized, and there is progress.

What has been lost, however, is the promise it carried, namely that through these innovations in science and technology, life would become better. We would overcome scarcity, we would overcome ignorance and probably even suffering, we would finally know what the good life is and have the chance to lead it. No one believes that anymore, right? No one believes that we will overcome scarcity; it is rather the opposite, we believe competition will result in even more scarcity, so that in the future we will have to work even harder. No one believes that with faster technologies we will solve the problem of time pressure and we know that we won’t overcome ignorance. Precisely because of all the progress in science and technology, we now don’t know what to eat, we don’t know how to give birth – we don’t know anything. This promise that anything will get better has been lost. It seems that art is kind of in between these two notions of progress, although it has always leaned more to the political and philosophical idea of progress: liberating human potentialities for the sake of human life.

When you look towards the non-technological side (and that is true for art, but for science too), there has been a shift from “progress” to “progression.” Progress for me is the idea of moving forward; there is some element of increase, growth or improvement. In art, as well as in science, at least the social sciences, we have given up on this idea. You see it in many spheres, but most clearly you see it in science. In science progress meant moving towards the truth. Max Planck once said: “you shouldn’t study physics, because very soon we will know everything.” The idea is that we will move forward and forward, and even if we will move forward forever, we will get closer to the truth. Progression means something else. I expect that if you today ask students, at least in the social sciences, why they want to be a social scientist, and what they are going to do when they are social scientists, they will say: “I want to come up with new ideas, and new questions, and new principles and new perspectives.” There is still innovation, but just as progression, in the sense of new ideas, but no longer moving towards the truth of the good society or whatever it is. This is also what I mean with the phrase rasender Stillstand: you move very quickly, you have to be innovative and creative, original and so on, but you’ve lost the idea of where you’re moving to.

When it comes to the arts, this is why I am now so preoccupied with this idea of resonance. Art is not my expertise, and although I like it very much I do not consider myself as a philosopher of art. With regard to the creation of art, the emphasis has always been on the creativity of the subject. You have to be creative and come up with something new and so on. But I believe that even in art there has to be what I call this resonance: there is something out there that you need to connect to. It is not just the subject in itself.

TL/RC: Does this shift from progress to progression also make, in a way, superfluous or irrelevant the very notion of an avant-garde?

HR:Actually, I would not give up on this idea completely. I think art is still a vitally important sphere of society because it is the one sphere, perhaps next to religion, that is least dominated by this logic of dynamic stabilization. That means that art is one sphere where we can explore different ways of being in the world and of relating to the world and I think really that this is what art is about, no matter whether we are talking about dance, painting or literature. Exploring and experimenting with different modes of relating to the world, imagining, reconstructing or finding other forms of relating to things and to people, coming up with new ways and possibilities. This is still an important function of an avant-gardist art.

2. Alienation

TL/RC: In the tradition of critical theory, the critique of alienation – from Marx to Rahel Jaeggi – has tended to avoid making substantial claims about human nature or the good life. You seem less hesitant, especially with regard to claims about the good life. How do you think these can be justified under conditions of deep pluralism? And what is their scope, both historically and culturally?

HR:When you look at the history of it, alienation has been a very influential term, even up until the 1970s or 80s when sociologists strived to measure alienation in different contexts and with different methods. After that I think it disappeared in the background for some time, because we didn’t know what a non-alienated way of being in the world would be. Rahel Jaeggi puts it nicely, when she says: “alienation is a relationship of non-relationship”, so it is a wrong form of relating to the world. I think alienation is only a powerful philosophical and sociological term if we keep the sensation, the feeling, that something is wrong here. But if you then completely refuse to think about what would be the right way of relating, then you are kind of lost, and that is why the concept has lost all power. Richard Schacht has also written about it, and he said that in the end alienation was used for everything people disliked. At that point it is not a useful concept anymore, and you might as well give up on it.

What I am trying to do is think about what would be a non-alienated way of relating to people, to things, to yourself, and so on. I try to reconstruct this by looking at the tradition of critical theory. All early critical theorists had a strong sense of alienation; and even if they didn’t always use the exact term, they would have an equivalent like “reification” or “instrumental rationality”. And they all had a kind of counter-sense, of a different way of relating to the world, like “mimesis” in Adorno, or even “aura” in Walter Benjamin’s work. Aura is a very ambivalent concept, but he basically meant that even with things or with nature, or with a landscape, there could be different ways of relating: it is looking back at you, it is speaking to you, it is somehow getting through. The concept of alienation only gains its strength when you really make the effort to think of the opposite.

Now there you have the problem you mention that you have total pluralism in the ways that we relate to the world. That is why I am very confident about the concept of resonance because it describes the nature of a relationship, but it doesn’t describe or prescribe the substance: it leaves open what you relate to.

TL/RC:Is it a formal category?

HR: You could say it is a formal category, although the question of form or substance in this context is actually totally confusing. It’s a kind of Vexierbild; it shifts. I think it is substantive in terms of the quality of the relationship, but it is formal in terms of what is at the end. I am inclined towards a relational ontology, saying that the subject and the world are actually created out of the relationship. So, I can say something about the nature of relationships, and that would be the way to reconcile the idea of resonance as an idea of the good life with ethical and conceptual pluralism or cultural pluralism.

We try to study this at the Max Weber Kolleg in Erfurt. We now have a long-term project, studying Weltbeziehung. This is actually a difficult term to translate into English because I would have to already introduce the subject – subject-world relationships – while I am not sure whether “subject” and “world” are not already secondary terms. Anyway, it is about these relationships in different cultural settings. In my book I say that resonance has three axes: social, material and vertical, and the way they are spread out is different for every culture. For example, in the vertical sphere it will depend on whether there is a god, or if there are many gods, or whether there are Daoist entities or whatever it is. It is the same in the inter-subjective realm: what kinds of relationships are made resonant, to whom and for whom? It is very different in all cultures and it is the same certainly with things. I think all cultures somehow have the idea that certain places or spaces are resonant, or certain entities like the forest, or the sacred stone or whatever it is. But I would even go one step further and say that maybe even those three axes are culturally dependent because to distinguish between the social and the objective, the artifact, and so on, is already perhaps not necessary.

TL/RC: Or between artifacts and spirits?

HR:Yes, exactly. In animistic societies you always find axes of resonance, although they might be ordered very differently. But this is still reconcilable with the idea of resonance. I would have still one question though, and that is that I do not know whether the very idea of resonance requires a closed subject, that is whether the subject and the world maybe have to be somehow closed in order to become resonant bodies. It is the same with physical bodies: if you have a musical instrument, let’s say a violin, it will only make its sound – that is resonate – if it is closed enough to have its own voice. So, it needs to be closed and it needs to be open in order to be affected. It is a very specific form of being closed and open. This is why I am a bit hesitant about whether on some level maybe other cultures cannot so easily be described in terms of resonance, because the relationships between subject and world may sometimes be more porous. This might be one level where maybe we have to adjust the concept in cultural terms, but on a basic level I believe that it is really true that all human beings, wherever they are born, only become an individual, a self or a subject, or however you call it, through processes of resonance.

TL/RC:Of course, your theory is also in that sense meant as a response to, and a theory about, modernity, right? In that sense it already is at least historically located.

HR:Yes, the main emphasis of my whole book was about how did this develop in modernity. What sensibilities for resonance, what axes for resonance and what obstacles, so to speak, emerge in modernity, and what is the modern way of relating to the world? But I did have this assumption that resonance is a kind of pre-modern capacity, so there is an anthropological element there.

TL/RC: To follow up on that, you say that at a certain point humans have a basic need for resonance just as they have a basic need for food. That seems like a strong claim which, if you look at it from a critical theory perspective, might raise some problems with regard to the historical and cultural variability of needs.

HR: Do you not think it is a plausible claim?

TL/RC:It might sound quite plausible, especially in the context of your book, but all the while there has been this debate in critical theory – for instance if you look at feminist scholars like Nancy Fraser, who articulate a critique of need interpretation and ascriptions in a meta-historical or meta-cultural sense. So, either it is a strong claim, or it is a conceptual overstretch or a truism, in which a large range of different activities or relations all fall under the heading of resonance. Then it becomes more a way of constructing a theory.

HR:There are two problems or misconceptions with the concept of resonance generally. The first is to think of resonance as just being harmony, as if I’m saying that it would be great when everything is harmonious or consonant. But I always say that total harmony or total consonance is not resonance at all, because for resonance there have to be different voices. The second is the conceptual overstretch, the idea that all relationships are interpreted as resonance. For example, if I punch you and you punch me back and we say: “well, that’s resonance”. I always emphasize that this is not resonance: resonance is tied to an openness, of wanting to be affected and answering, so it is a very specific form of relationship.

Thus far I am convinced that there is good evidence on all levels that human beings – and maybe this even goes for all mammals – are forced, by everything they are, to develop such relationships. As Merleau-Ponty writes: I start with the sense that something is there, something is present. This is the first element of awareness and you can actually notice this when you wake up from very deep sleep or from being unconscious. Before you know who you are and what the world is you have this sensation that there is something, right? I think it is totally inconceivable for a human being without this sense to develop relationships. So I would say yes, I am fully convinced that this is the basic category.

It is similar to what Axel Honneth writes with regard to recognition: human beings need recognition of some sort. Or what people talk about with regard to the language capacity of human beings. These conceptions have a similar structure to what I want to say about resonance. On a basic level, getting into resonance, developing a sense of who you are and what the world is out of moments, or processes, of resonance, is something everyone is engaged in. People need recognition and they need language, independent of the kind of recognition or the exact language they then speak. The latter is historically dependent.

So, there are two sides to what I want to say. There is an anthropological need or element of resonance, but then the specific form it takes, the specific need and the specific sensibilities you can only explain historically, which is what I try to do in the chapter on modernity, where I try to work out our modern conception of love, for example. I am not claiming that that particular conception is anthropological, not even the relationship to our children, art or nature. Whether you believe that there is a voice of nature, that is not anthropological, but a specification that developed out of this basic anthropological need. Again, I think it is the same as when you think about language; if you reflect upon our language then of course you would have to make a lot of historical qualifications depending on whether you are talking about Swahili or German, but you can still talk about a basic need or capacity for language. I can’t really see why you couldn’t do both, thereby avoiding the two pitfalls that you were rightfully pointing to.

TL/RC:On the one hand, it seems that you try to aim at developing a notion of alienation and resonance that is not reducible to a merely subjective experience. On the other hand, your notion of resonance is still experience-based – e.g. when you claim that alienation is overcome if the subjects in question make the experience that the (natural and social) world resonates with them. However, again from a critical theory perspective, one could imagine that such experiences of resonance are very much part and parcel of the most common forms of alienation. Do you end up having to claim that the neoliberal subjects who, say, really feel resonance when they go to their yoga class or have a break in Bali or go to the wine tasting in their local hipster bar (without having a purely instrumental relation to these activities) know deep inside themselves that this is not true but simulated (and thus alienation-enhancing) resonance. Your idea of simulated resonance is intriguing, but it seems that you then have to refer to objective criteria in order to distinguish actual from merely simulated resonance.

HR:Those are tricky points. On the deepest level, there is really a very difficult question: Is resonance a psychological relation – something I experience – or is it an ontological relation – something that is really going on between us. If it is ontological, then it is somewhere out there; if it is psychological, then I feel if our conversation was resonant or not. I really want to say that it is more than psychological, it is a kind of “in between”. Charles Taylor has something similar in mind in his discussion of romantic philosophy in terms of the “inter space”. You could also think of Bruno Latour’s work. Resonance cannot just be understood along constructivist lines – as if we could construct or project it – it is a kind of “in between”. As for the neoliberal subject and stimulated resonance: the feeling is that there is something wrong with going to Bali or the yoga class, but the question is: what is wrong? Let’s take the example of an ideal neoliberal manager going to the yoga class and to Bali on holiday, about whom I think I can make two points. The first concerns the basic disposition, the disposition towards the world within which you operate and which is not just of your own choosing: in the case of the neoliberal, what he does for a living in the business sphere is characterized by a very instrumental stance towards the world and this is at odds with resonance. Why? Because getting into resonance involves a kind of not knowing when it happens, not knowing what the outcome will be. So, it requires a kind of openness, which is a different disposition from the instrumental, optimizing, efficiency-oriented rationalizing stance which you normally have to take. The basic stance you take towards the world as a neoliberal manager is one of reification and then you seek to counterbalance it through what I call an oasis of resonance, like a yoga class. So, what is wrong with the yoga class? The main problem concerns the difference between resonance and sentimentality. I use the German term Rührung and develop it out of the work of Helmuth Plessner. Another example would be watching Hollywood blockbusters like Titanic, which are very melodramatic. Let’s say I cry at the end and someone asks me: “Oh, that’s what you mean by resonance.” I would respond that this is not exactly what I mean by resonance, this is Rührung, which does not involve encountering some other which really has this also irritating difference, which calls on me to answer. Rührung is just about having a strong sensation within myself and I only instrumentally use this other. It is not encountering an other, to which I then answer. What is also missing here is any sense of self-efficacy, this reaching out to the other and getting into contact with it and thereby being transformed. The vital element of resonance is tied to this encounter in which I experience a transformation of myself, I experience this other, which transforms me. And if I only have an oasis, e.g. if I meditate once in a while, then this feels totally empty, and this is not resonance. I call it an echo-chamber. Probably the same holds for the trip to Bali: It does not really involve getting into contact with something that truly transforms you, it is just for about forgetting the instrumental stance I am forced to take for a limited time.

TL/RC:So, it is also instrumental in that it allows you to momentarily get away from yourself?

HR:Yes, exactly, this is what I call the reification of resonance, the idea that you try to use these moments in order to be more successful, but the thing is that then your basic disposition towards the world, the way that you relate to it, remains instrumental, optimizing, speeding up. In this case you use remnants, or simulations or echo-chambers in order to be even more successful.

3. Resonance

TL/RC:Moving on to the theory of resonance, what struck us also as readers of Benjamin is that in your definition of resonance you speak of an instant, a “momentum”, an Aufblitzen, which could remind one of both the concept of aura and of now-time. Do you indeed consider this experience of resonance as so limited in time, and, if so, why? How do these instances relate to the more durable relations and axes of resonance that you refer to (do they give rise to them, keep them dynamic, undermine them)? And, following up on that, are these “instances” enough to counter (or answer) the problem of acceleration and the alienation that they somehow answer to?

HR:This is a very difficult question as well. In my book I do not really focus on the temporality of resonance, which is maybe surprising given my earlier work. It is true that I write that strong experiences of resonance are only momentary, and that this kind of dynamic cannot be put on a permanent basis. But we are speaking of experiences of resonance – and they are unpredictable. If you look at music, which has been a paradigm case for me, but also at religious experiences or love, I think there is empirical evidence for claiming that people who go to concerts a lot only one out of ten or even hundred times really have a strong experience, but it is strong enough to go back to it, to search for it again and again. So it is a momentary experience but you develop it along axes and axes are more stable, so if music is important to you, you keep going to concerts and you have at least memories, reminisces of resonance, which can permanently reassure your axes of resonance.

Rituals actually play a strong role in creating conditions for resonance. In religion this is very clear but also in rock concerts or in football stadiums there is a very clear ritualistic sense. This is something that we want to explore in Erfurt, in a research group called “Ritual and Resonance”. The idea is that this brings you into a certain disposition. I call these preconditions axes and these axes are developed over time because they also create the experience that resonance might happen and your sense of self-efficacy. The other very important element is the disposition. You can only get into these moments of resonance or relationships of resonance, if your disposition towards the world is resonant: being open to hearing the call, being affected, and you have to have the expectation that you can reach out. What I call self-efficacy is not exactly psychological. It concerns reaching out and making these moments possible, and this position is something that you can actually work on and that is more temporarily extended. So, you have axes of resonance, which are established over time and need a certain form of stability, and you have dispositions of resonance, and both involve long-term stability. In comparison, experiences of resonance are temporary. Still, I think it is wrong to assume that resonance means being completely in the here and now. When you really experience resonance, the temporal horizon rather widens, it extends; it is the co-presence of the past and the future. Once you are in resonance with something it is like the past speaks to you and through you into the future. It is this extending that makes it feel as if time is running through you. This is different from the examples of the Bali vacation and the yoga class as in these cases one just wants to be in the here and now and block out what one did yesterday and what one will do tomorrow – this is not the temporal structure of resonance. In resonance the past and the present are meaningfully reconnected.

TL/RC:You make it very clear that “resonance” isn’t the same as harmony, and you clearly delineate resonance from concepts such as Eigentlichkeit or authenticity. At the same time, the very metaphor of resonance, the usual meaning of the term, might be seen as working against you. After all, something only “resonates” if it is of the same kind, think of musical tones – this could be seen as the fundamental problem of the allegory of the tuning forks you use to clarify your notion of resonance. What space does this leave for truly dissonant voices?

HR:For me at least the greatest insight to get out of the resonance conception is a way to overcome the aporetic dualism between authenticity and identity theories on the one hand, and post-structural difference theories on the other. Resonance is not about authenticity in the sense that I must be true to myself or that it confirms my authenticity, because it involves transformation: it is feeling called upon by something different that transforms me. In that sense it fits difference theories, but I would argue that it is not mere difference, because I have to develop my own voice and answer the call. So, I would say that it is exactly in between those two. There are elements of dissonance, or difference, which cannot be overcome. But I cannot enter into a relation of resonance if, for example, it is a thought, or an experience, that is so different that I cannot relate to it. Of course, there are also those moments of dissonance that are tied to what I call repulsion. In my view there is no negative resonance. There is a very clear distinction, and you can really feel it immediately or reproduce it phenomenologically, between repulsion and resonance.

Take the example of a discussion: if we all agree completely, there is no resonance; if the interlocutor always agrees, there is no resonance at all, it is just a monologue. Resonance is not consonance. With my best friends I always argue all the time about everything; it involves hearing a voice that says something different and that makes me answer, a process whereby we both shift and transform into something else. The situation might turn if you say, for example, “You are just a racist idiot” – then closure occurs and I no longer want to be affected. That is a different stance towards the world and I want to conceptually distinguish these two elements: one is repulsion and the other is resonance. Resonance is not agreement; resonance is in between consonance and dissonance. Of course, there are moments of dissonance which are repulsion and that are not resonance at all, but in the hermeneutical tradition there is this thought – maybe first articulated by Gadamer, but you find it in Taylor as well – that an adequate answer to the claim “I don’t understand” could be “then change yourself in order to understand it”. Resonance is natural realization of this thought. It’s not so much “I have to change myself” but rather “let yourself be transformed by the other” by getting in touch with it. The more you already are in a resonant relationship with the world, the more your capacity widens to really get into contact with difference. Difference can become more different and it can increase if you have the expectation of entering into a resonant relationship, then you find it interesting to encounter a Muslim or a Buddhist or whatever it is. But if you have the feeling- and I read this in the political situation- if you feel non-resonantly connected to the world, if you feel alienated then your stance is “I do not want these Muslims here”, then you are closed to difference. I really think the political problem here might be tied to a lack of self-efficacy.

TL/RC:Doesn’t ideology also often work through resonance? Creating a group identity or a community can also be a way of creating resonance. So of course when you are afraid of the world, you might say “I do not want Muslims in my neighborhood” but it might also be that you have a tight community, e.g. in a small village, and when someone enters you cannot form this resonant relationship because of the kind of community you are in.

HR:Empirically this seems wrong to me. There is research that indicated that anti-immigration feelings are not strongest in tight knit, old communities like peasant villages, but in the commuter neighborhoods of the suburbs of big cities where people do not know each other, where they do not have a community- that is exactly the point where they might feel that they don’t have a voice or collective self-efficacy and therefore they turn against strangers. If you have a well-functioning community, then taking in strangers is a rather welcome opportunity. If you have the fear of losing the community that means you have the fear of losing your own voice. In such a situation you cannot answer, then you are overwhelmed and you feel that you have to give in to the foreigners. That is exactly the anxiety that fuels anti-immigration feelings all over the world.

If you feel you have a strong community, a vibrant life, then you are not so concerned that you have to give in. Of course, there might be a point at which you lose your own voice, but this is far from the situation we’re in. If you have the experience of a resonant community then it is not a problem to take in foreigners.

As for ideology, in my view political ideologies are only successful if they find an axis of resonance- they have to touch on this somehow. But of course, ideologies very soon become a kind of echo-chamber. Most ideologies live on resentment and resentment is the opposite of resonance. You even see this in the gestures, in the faces, you hear it in the voices: the whole attitude is repulsive towards the world. Therefore, I think that we can distinguish between a resonant attitude and an ideology which is not resonance, which is a kind of echo-chamber based on resentment.

TL/RC:You also describe resonance as a kind of emotive response. When discussing recognition you point out that resonance is closer to Durkheim’s notion of collective effervescence, a kind of collective ecstasy in which members of the collective undergo a process of fusion which is largely beyond their cognitive and deliberative capacities and you also invoke Weber’s notion of charisma – turning to the politics of resonance, this does sound very familiar with regard to current right-wing populism and rather scary: How do you avoid the slide into an anti-rationalist collectivist politics which leaves little room for dissenting voices? Can the desire for resonance that you ascribe to citizens – including to the infamous Wutbürger – really be an emancipatory energy?

HR:This question has many layers. To start with, I think that in the case of the Wutbürger there is a lack of resonance. The desire for resonance creates the Wutbürger and even right-wing populist movements. They feel that they are not heard and not seen: they are not resonantly connected with politics. That is why they say all the time that the politicians do not hear them, they do not speak to them or for them. This is a form of political alienation. Right-wing populists give the promise of resonance: “We hear you, we see you, we give you a voice.” This is the case with Brexit, Trump, the AfD in Germany. But there is a double fallacy of right-wing populism. The first fallacy is to say that alienation is created by immigrants. If you look at East Germany or Eastern Europe, for example, there are hardly any immigrants. To believe that your deep sentiment of alienation is caused by a tiny minority of Muslims is totally idiotic, it is not a rational explanation. The second fallacy is even worse and consists in the promise of a “resonance” that is not resonance, but fusion.

I like Erich Fromm’s theory because he saw that alienation is the deepest fear of modern individuals. There are two ways to overcome it. One is through fusion: I want to overcome my isolation and fuse with all the others who are like myself and that is what right-wing populism really promises. The idea is exactly the opposite of getting in touch with the other or some other. Right-wing populism lives off this idea of being against: Those who support it do not want to hear anyone else except for themselves and this is normally just one voice – the leader. This is an ideology of complete harmony, which is not resonance at all. It is a total echo-chamber based on repulsion. Jan-Werner Müller gets this right with his idea that the populists claim “we are the people and no one else.” “Whoever is not of our opinion, is not the people.” This is so blatantly non-resonant that I don’t think it makes any sense to claim that right-wing populists create resonance.

Resonance is a multilayered phenomenon and I insist that it is not just cognitive. In contrast to Habermas’s and Forst’s emphasis on reasons, and in line with William Connolly, there is a visceral and almost bodily quality to politics. So, resonance is something that is always embodied, it is emotional but it is not dissolved from the cognitive element. Resonant relationships therefore also create resonance between rationality and emotivity and the embodied side. So there has to be some kind of rational control, and what I tried to develop in the book is that you can only be in resonance with something that is connected to a strong evaluation: something which you are convinced is truly important to even relate to, and therefore there is of course a kind of rational check. You cannot get into resonance with something you cannot rationally explain at least as potentially valuable.

TL/RC:To conclude, here are two more questions on art. First, you already mentioned the notion of “oases of resonance”, amidst an accelerating world, and in the book you also suggest that art might be a possible example. Would the early critical theorists agree? Think of Marcuse’s notion of the “affirmative character of culture”, which allows you to temporarily turn away from bourgeois society but therefore also affirms it and conditions it in a way, or of Adorno’s rejection of art as Sonntagsvergnügen. Should art offer an “oasis” and thereby affirm the existing order or should it not offer an “oasis” at all?

HR:This is a very interesting question. At least I have the intuition that I do not share Adorno’s opinion here; as I said there are moments of art that are more like Plessner’s Rührung, the sentimentality that I described above. It allows us to feel good for a moment. But I also think there is art that is neither “high” nor “low” culture and which is not about having fun or being entertained – I think of my heroes Pink Floyd – but where “something is going on” or “something comes across”. If it is only about having fun then it is like Plessner’s sentimentality… like the Hollywood blockbuster after which I want to cry, or feel good or sad. This is not about resonance. Art should insist on the transformative element of resonance. You see it even in rock music, where a lot of people say that after listening to a record or going to a concert they have become a different person. Of course, this is only a rhetorical way of speaking but there is some moment of truth here which points to the transformative effect that art needs to preserve. If it becomes only an “oasis” like the Hollywood blockbuster then we are lost.

If you really resonate with something then the result is unpredictable. It is not that you are better off on Monday. So even though you might go to the museum on Sunday, just as in in order to counterbalance the alienating experiences you have in the rest of the week, there might be this one moment, this experience of touching that has a kind of excess meaning, which gives you a sense of a different way of relating to the world. If you don’t have such experiences that reinvigorate your sense of the possibility of a different way of relating to the world, then you’re really in a difficult situation.

In the book I claim that even on the everyday shop floor level work is an axis of resonance. People love to work and they feel self-efficacy in their work. Even in the industrial factory workers say they have a sense of doing good work or making things well, and then they feel the counter pressures of being fast, efficient, and cheap. It is exactly in this resonant experience of work that you develop a counterforce, even a bodily felt resistance. My colleagues in industrial sociology are really struck by this, that people on the factory level say that the problem is that they are not allowed to do their work properly, to do good work. Even under alienating conditions there is therefore this moment of resonance in art as well as in work.

TL/RC:You write that much art is an expression of alienation, and the Winterreise is one of the best examples you give for this. On the other hand, isn’t this a somehow limited (romantic or early modernist) notion of art? How about conceptual art, pop-art, etc.? Is it necessarily the goal and/or responsibility of art to offer us “resonant” experiences? Aesthetically it seems a bit dubious to claim, as you do in the book, that atonal music, abstract art and fragmented literary narrative show how art can lose its force – how is that more than an expression of your own aesthetic preference? So in line with that, how does the concept of resonance here relate to other aesthetic concepts, such as the sublime, shock, the abject, and the like, because those can also be very strong aesthetic experiences, right? Perhaps an aesthetic experience doesn’t need to be resonant.

HR:I disagree. I would say that the experiences of the sublime or shock moments are moments of resonance because you encounter something that is irreducible. Strong evaluation can arise out of the experience – there is something, even in the experience of shock, that gets through to me and even I don’t understand it, it is a voice speaking that might have something to say. Someone will have to convince me that in some contemporary art, like atonal music, there is still this element of experience. Overall, my reflections on art and aesthetic experience focus on the receptive side: how do we experience these works of art? In the moment of strong evaluation we do not just say that an artwork is innovative, or original, but that there is something there that is truly important in itself and that speaks to us. I have the feeling that this sense is lost in many forms of contemporary art.


This interview was previously published in the book The Future of the New. Artistic Innovation in Times of Social Acceleration (ed. Thijs Lijster) and is reprinted here with the permission of the publisher, Valiz Amsterdam.

Interview with Cécile Laborde

Political theorists have only quite recently started to reflect on their use of the concept ‘religion’. They often do so in response to critiques pointing out liberal theory’s unsatisfactory and partial construal of this concept. The liberal secular approach to religion is, these critiques argue, strongly influenced by its use of a specific definition of religion as something that is ‘private, voluntary, individual, textual, and believed’ (Sullivan 2005, 8). Many critical scholars draw attention to the specifically western European historical trajectory in which a modern notion of religion took shape. Reflecting on the concept of religion has thus led to an interest in the genealogy of that concept and in that of related liberal ideals such as ‘freedom of religion’ and ‘separation of church and state’ (See for example the works of Asad 1993, 2003; Mahmood 2015; Sullivan 2005, Hurd 2015; Danchin 2008).

In Liberalism’s Religion (2017)Cécile Labordepresents a profound and nuanced response to these challenges. Laborde, who currently holds the Nuffield Chair of Political Theory at the University of Oxford, was previously a Professor of Political Theory at University College London where she founded UCL’s Religion and Political Theory Centre (RAPT).RAPT was the home of the research project ‘Is Religion Special? Secularism and Religion in Contemporary Legal and Political Theory,’ (2012-2017) funded by the European Research Council. Her most recent book is a result of that project and a thorough reflection on the project’s main questions regarding the unique status of religion in western law and politics.

Western states and legal systems single out religion as something that deserves special treatment. States grant special protections to religious beliefs which are not granted to non-religious commitments – e.g. rights to worship or legal exemptions from certain general laws. On the other hand, religion is also treated as something that needs to be contained. The constitutional principle of non-establishment identifies religion as something the state should keep itself separate from – e.g. by not subsidizing religious organization or banning religious signs in government buildings. While the principles of religious freedom and non-establishment can be interpreted in many different ways, western states and transnational legal systems generally treat religious beliefs, organizations, and individuals in a way that differs from the manner they treat political opinions, soccer clubs or art enthusiasts.

In her book and other recent publications, Laborde contributes to the active debate in which legal scholars and philosophers question whether religion’s special status is compatible with the state’s equal treatment of religious and non-religious citizens (e.g. Boucher and Laborde 2014; Dworkin 2013; Laborde 2014; Leiter 2013; Nussbaum 2005; Schwartzman 2012). Laborde builds on the work of liberal egalitarian scholars who argue that religion should only be protected as ‘a subset of a broader category of respect-worthy beliefs and activities’ (Laborde 2017, 42), but is critical of the way these authors analogize religion using broad and vague categories such as ‘comprehensive doctrine’ or ‘system of personal ethics’. She instead aims to ‘to revise the liberal egalitarian theory of religion and the state, providing a more complex picture of what religion is like, by identifying an array of politically or legally-relevant dimensions of religion’ (Laborde 2017, 12). In what Laborde designates as her ‘disaggregation approach’, she distinguishes different features of religion – features it shares with non-religious commitments, identities, and activities – and shows how they are connected to different liberal values. Laborde thereby also steps away from those critical scholars who state that delimiting the ‘religious’ in an objective non-biased way is simply impossible and who claim therefore that ‘religion’ is not an appropriate legal or political category at all (see Sullivan 2005; Hurd 2015). By taking seriously the critiques which point out the ‘historical embeddedness’ of liberal thought on religion, and by constructing a theory that is responsive to such challenges, she brings the debates on religion’s special status to a new level.

Before the publication of Liberalism’s Religion, Cécile Laborde had already published extensively in the areas of liberalism and religion, state secularism, tolerance, and immigrant integration. She also worked on the broader topics of theories of law and the state, pluralism, syndicalism, and on contemporary theories of nationalism, multiculturalism, secularism and global justice. In her 2008 monograph Critical Republicanism. The Hijab Controversy in Political Philosophy, Laborde explored the tensions between the French philosophy of state laïcité and the reality of Muslim domination in France by meticulously analyzing the arguments and discourses surrounding France’s 2004 ban on religious signs in schools. The book develops a theory of critical republicanism that challenges official interpretations of laïcité but reinterprets and upholds certain core tenets of republicanism. ‘Liberalism’s Religion,’ Laborde states, ‘takes on a broader view of western political theory than Critical Republicanism’.In it, her own preferred theory of critical republicanism is presented as one of several reasonable traditions of thought, falling ‘within the broad umbrella of liberalism’. Laborde’s latest monograph thus presents a meta-perspective on topics that already figure prominently in her earlier work. This time she does not primarily focus on the gaps that exist between norms and practice but points out internal tensions within liberal political theory itself – tensions that can be brought to light by closely analyzing religion’s place within the liberal tradition.

At a recent event in Amsterdam, Anna Blijdenstein sat down to discuss some of these themes with Cécile Laborde.

Anna Blijdenstein: Before starting the ERC project on religion and secularism you had already written about the topic of religion, for example in Critical Republicanism. The Hijab Controversy and Political Philosophy (2008). What led you to pose the question ‘Is religion special’?

Cécile Laborde: I worked on religion before, and not only on the hijab controversy. I have also written about Islam in Senegal, religious exemptions, state laïcité, and immigrant integration. And I was just quite struck by the fact that the only concept people always took for granted was the concept of ‘religion’. It was always used as if it was quite clear what it was, a ‘thing’ that had to be dealt with or managed. This was particularly the case in the work of political philosophers. They – or maybe I should say we – employed an un-reflected-upon concept of religion that was also very limited. When pushed, we thought of religion as what John Rawls called ‘a conception of the good’. So we always worked with an analogy. Every time we said ‘conception of the good’, what we really had in mind was a religion, and every time we said ‘religion’ we had in mind something like a private conception of the good.

We talked about the separation of state and religion;the free exercise of religion, freedom of religion, butthe term itself was never clearly defined. The more I thought about it, the more I wondered if all these concepts might not mean something different in different contexts. My starting point was that in the idea of the separation of state and religion,the notion of religion is quite a complex one, and is going to be different than in the context of questions of religious freedom. So that was the starting point of the project: to interrogate the concept of religion.

AB: You say that political philosophers, in particular, failed to reflect on religion. Did other, more reflexive disciplines influence your project?

CL: I found the lack of reflection particularly puzzling because other disciplines had worked on religion quite a lot. I wanted to bridge that gap. There are well-established British and American schools for the sociology of religion for example. Reading these mainstream sociologists has been very good simply to grasp the diversity of religious experiences and the richness of the vocabulary with which these authors describe a variety of religious experiences: from faith to ritual to collective identity. It was really about getting a sense of something a bit more complex than what political philosophers were working with.

And then there is a more critical school that I am also interested in: scholars, mainly influenced by Talal Asad and his followers, who take both a Foucauldian and post-colonialist approach to religion. This project is mostly critical of the categories of liberal modernity and state secularism. I am interested in both and wanted to see which criticisms political philosophy should take seriously and which were irrelevant to the work that we were doing. So I wanted to do that work: seeing if there was anything we should learn from traditional sociology of religion, history of religion, the comparative study of religion, and the critical, post-colonialist, Foucauldian views. I wanted to see how we should respond to them – by taking them seriously.

AB: You want to take these disciplines seriously but you also argue that not all critiques are relevant to the work political philosophers are doing. Could you explain this position a little further?

CL: I think the main criticism that has been coming from both quarters – both from sociologists of religion and adherents to the more critical school – is that political philosophers don’t ‘get’ religion. They argue that philosophers are working with an empirically flawed concept, a too narrow, too restricted, too individualistic view of religion. And that this is not what religion really is. This is what I take to be the most interesting criticism and this is the one I am trying to formulate a response to.

The answer, however, is twofold. I want to disagree with the general idea that the law of liberal states should work with a concept of religion that accurately describes religion and religious experience as a whole. Capturing the whole of reality is not what the law should do. So it can’t be a criticism in itself to say that we do not work with religion ‘as it is’. The point of law is not to describe an empirical reality, but to capture the ethically or normatively relevant features of a phenomenon.

For this reason, I would agree that there is something a bit wrong with a law of freedom of religion that captures a very contested notion of conscience as the only relevant form of individual integrity. In so far as the law of freedom of religion exists to protect dimensions of people’s relationship to the world in a way that expresses their deeper integrity, then, of course, not only conscience-based religions do that. So I concede that liberal philosophy but also liberal law should have a richer notion of the ethically relevant dimensions of religion, one that protects not only conscience, but also the practices and forms of association people see as essential in living by their ethical commitments and projects. I introduce the notion of integrity as the normative value that stands for religion in freedom of religion cases. It is this value that the law should aim to protect in cases of free exercise. But when we think about why there should be a separation between state and religion, I think the law picks out a different ethically salient dimension of ‘religion’. So the question of state secularism is a much more complicated story.

AB: Do you think that religion poses a specific problem for liberal-democratic states? And is secularism the most suitable term to describe the relationship between religion and the state?

CL: In my book, I pose the question of whether liberal legitimacy requires secularism – or separation between state and religion – and if so, which form that separation should take. I argue that the best way to answer this question is to ‘disaggregate’ religion into four constituent elements, and I argue that the liberal state is secular in four distinct senses. I identify four different features that, when a religious organization or conception has them, the state should not endorse, enforce, or establish. When religion does not exhibit these features, it is perfectly okay for a state to be ‘religious’ is that sense. There is a case for the separation of religion and the state, and it is in virtue of certain features that some religions might have, but that might also be shared by non-religious identities or conceptions.

AB: Could you describe these four senses in which a state should be secular?

CL: The first feature is about epistemic justification. Some people argue that religious arguments are always illegitimate in the public sphere but I disagree with that. I think there is a large scope for all kinds of religious arguments in the public sphere, and certainly citizens are under no obligation to refrain from using any argument they wish. To be clear, for me, a ‘secular state’ means that it is the state that should be secular, not the citizens. This view of secularism differs greatly from other well-known versions such as French laïcité in which everybody has to be secular, including ordinary citizens, including girls wearing hijab in a public school. As you know, I have written against that view. However, I do think the state and its officials have a duty of restraint in the expression of their religious beliefs.

Now, this does not mean that an official cannot make reference to her deeply held ethical or religious belief. It is an epistemic criterion, and by that, I mean that it is a criterion of accessibility. The state, when it justifies its laws, should appeal only to reasons that are epistemically accessible. Other people can understand them, even if they don’t agree with them, so they can be the object of public debate. If you put it that way, you can see that many religious views and ideas are not epistemically inaccessible. There are lots of things about religion that communicate meaning and can be understood. And you can also see that many non-religious ideas are epistemically inaccessible. So religion is not special in that sense. So that is my first criterion. The state is secular in so far as state officials do not appeal to epistemically inaccessible reasons. This is what I call justificatory secularism.

The second relevant feature of religion is that it can signal an identity that is socially divisive. When we think about what is wrong with a state enforcing and endorsing a religious identity – what’s wrong with the establishment of Christianity, Islam or Judaism by a state – it’s that it makes non-members of those religions into second-class citizens. If you live in a state that is openly Christian and you are not Christian yourself, then you might think you are not an equal citizen. So that is the second criterion, civic inclusiveness. These cases where the endorsement of one religion causes the people who do not belong to feel excluded, highlight a different dimension of religion, the dimension of religion which makes it a possibly divisive identity. Here religion is much like race or gender: the reason we don’t want a religious state is the same as the reason why we don’t want an ethnic state or an apartheid state. But of course, not all religions are socially divisive in that way. So this criterion, in a different way from the others, is a contingent, context-specific one. An example I often use is Senegal, a country with a 90 percent Muslim population. The state endorses symbols of Islam in its institutions. I don’t think that this is problematic because people in Senegal, including Christians and atheists, do not see Islam as a socially divisive identity. In that particular context, the endorsement of Islam by the state is fine. I have a different view of countries like Egypt and Turkey where religion is clearly politicized and you cannot really say religion is a non-divisive identity.

A third reason we think the state should not enforce religion is that we believe that many religions seek to regulate the whole of our lives. They want to regulate what we eat, whom we sleep with, how we dress, what we do with our bodies and our lives. Now it’s perfectly fine for religions to do that. But a liberal would think it wrong for the state to endorse or enforce any of those particular religions because it forces one into living a comprehensive life, which is not the one you would have chosen for yourself. That is a very basic liberal idea of personal liberty. And here peeks out a third dimension of religion which is that religion is a comprehensive system of ethics. And again there are other comprehensive systems of ethics, religion is not the only one, but a liberal state is a non-comprehensive state. On the whole, a secular state would let people decide how they want to lead their lives.

I will go to the last one, which is the most fundamental one. The state is secular, the fourth sense of secular, when it is non-theocratic. This idea, which may sound a bit simple or obvious, but it goes to the heart of secularism, has to do with sovereignty. Who has the final say in the state? Who decides what pertains to personal liberty, and what does not? Who decides on what goes where? The ultimate source of legitimacy in a democracy has to be the demos. There is no alternative unless you think we have to refer to the will of God. I don’t think of the demos as a general will, Rousseau style. It might be a pluralist demos, but in the end, the only way we can make decisions is together collectively and democratically.

AB: Veit Bader argued that the notion of ‘secularism’ or the ‘secular state’ should be replaced by ‘priority for liberal democracy (2007)’. Your disaggregation approach also seems to identify specific values a liberal state aims to protect. Why do you find it necessary to hold on to the notion of the secular?

CL: I believe our projects are not dissimilar. Like Veit Bader, I am trying to understand the normative logic of liberal institutions. But what I try to show is that at the heart of liberal constitutionalism there is a political-religious conflict. The western liberal state emerged out of the crucible of the European religious wars in the 17th century. To understand where we come from, and the kind of problems the liberal state has to solve, or thinks is trying to solve, we have to understand the concept of religion that for me underlies the very liberal democratic order. What Bader does is similar to the other theories I engage with in my book. Like other liberal egalitarians, such as Ronald Dworkin, Christopher Eisgruber and Lawrence Sager, and Charles Taylor and Jocelyn Maclure, he wants to dissolve religion into a broader category of the good. I want to do more disaggregative work. Like Bader, I think one should not say that ‘the state’ should separate itself from ‘religion’ in general. However, one should explain which dimensions of religion it should separate itself from.

Some liberal pluralists like Bader would say that the state is just a framework, a neutral framework for the accommodation of difference. I disagree with that. I don’t think the state is neutral in that sense. When the state says that individuals are sovereign in the domain of ethics, it really takes a position against some religious views. And that is not a neutral stance at all. Many religious people are right to say “hang on, the state is not neutral when it says you have a right to an abortion” for instance. I want to say they are actually right to say “for us, abortion is murder, so allowing it is not neutral”. They are right because liberals always prioritize what, following Dworkin, I call ‘ethical independence’: the idea that we are always responsible for what we do with our lives and will always prioritize this over other goods, be it the family, unborn life or marriage. These are important goods but, on the liberal view, you can only pursue them privately, the state should not promote them itself. But by not abstaining from taking a view on say, whether the fetus is a person, the liberal state is clearly not neutral about the good.

Bader might argue for a more neutral framework of accommodation. I have a more robust view of what the liberal state is. The state is not a neutral arena, the state promotes a particular view of the person. This is a thin view, it is not a comprehensive view, of the person as free. This gives us an answer, a response to religious critics of liberalism. But again, it is a response that is a concessive one: I agree with their critique of many of the liberal claims to neutrality. I think they are right to tell us that liberalism is not neutral, and I think that we should bite this bullet.

AB: Is this fact of non-neutrality a reason for the extensive accommodation of religious groups and individuals?

CL: That is possibly the case. I don’t take a position on that in my book. I am interested in the justification of the liberal state and how it justifies itself in relation to religion. Which particular policies it would then implement towards religious groups is a completely separate question. Politically, I might agree that there would be quite a lot of state support that should be channeled towards various religious institutions. But there would be a separate justification for that. For me, it would be in the name of freedom of association, or in the name of rights to education or healthcare. These are secular goods the state provides and it would support religious organizations so they can help provide these goods. I don’t think the state should provide or help provide directly religious goods.

I also believe that when a religious group engages in activities like teaching, healthcare, or commercial activities and wants to be exempted from anti-discrimination law in the name of freedom of religion, the state should be critical. They might say: “hang on, we are a religious group. When we run schools and hospitals or when we have businesses, for us these are religious. Our businesses are Christian, our teaching is Christian, so please can we get an exemption from Obamacare?” The state should come in and say “actually, you are not entitled to claim religious freedom in this case”. Jean Cohen has written about the case in which Hobby Lobby Stores were exempted, on religious grounds, from having to implement a healthcare plan for employees which included contraceptive methods (Cohen 2014). When you operate in the marketplace I think you should be treated like any commercial organization.

AB: Do you believe that to be true for schools as well? Should they not be exempted from anti-discrimination law to be able to employ teachers that adhere to a specific faith?

CL: Schools are a harder case because some schools indeed have a right to teach religion. But when you are teaching a secular subject to children who are not of the faith, this is quite far removed from the core purpose of the religious association. The problem is that these organizations might have hundreds of employees. Many of them are not members of the church and the people they teach might not be members of the church.

In the end, where the boundary lies between what is properly religious and what isn’t is going to have to be democratically decided. This doesn’t mean it will not be on the side of religious groups. In a society that is very religious or that prefers religious provisions like the Netherlands, it might mean that democratically – and judges might follow that view – it may have an expansive view of what counts as religious. My point is ultimately this is what democratic communities must decide for themselves.

Another way of putting it is that this is not a human rights matter, not something that can be decided universally for all societies. It can’t be defined prior to democratic deliberation and it cannot be decided by assessing the content of the doctrines religious organizations adhere to. These can never be the ultimate source of legitimacy. There has to be a democratic discussion, and each society decides what should be considered as a proper exercise of religion and what isn’t. This is what I mean by the fourth dimension of secularism. The competence-competence lies with the demos.

AB: There has been a change in European societies to see minorities as ‘religious’ minorities instead of ethnic or racialized, especially when it comes to Muslims. In some cases, it might be useful for minorities to be put into a religious category and in other cases not so much. Could you share your views on this?

CL: Many Europeans ‘discovered’ religion after 9/11. They discovered there was a religious problem in the wake of a particularly violent episode of Islamic terrorism. And then many of the issues related to immigrant integration started to be described in terms of a conflict of civilization between Islam and the West. The idea took hold that Islam is fundamentally anti-secular and anti-democratic and that there is a fundamental incompatibility between religion and liberalism. I want to look at the much more complicated relationship that liberalism has with that ‘thing’ that we call religion. This is what I want to push on. I want to provide clarity about which bits of religion should be protected, and which bits of religion the state should be protected from. Now we just bundle all these issues together.

If we feel clearer about these two main things, the non-establishment side and the free exercise side, hopefully, we can relax a bit about the Muslim question and realize there is no such thing. So I hope my approach disentangles what is too often perceived as a ‘Muslim problem’. In fact, some issues discussed in these debates have to do with civic exclusion, others with religion as comprehensive systems of ethics. Some forms of Islam are indeed quite comprehensive, in the sense that they regulate norms of social and personal life in a manner a liberal state would not do. I am hoping that instead of seeing it as a problem with Islam or as a religious problem, we can identify the different kinds of issues at stake and show that for every issue there is no specificity for Muslims. It is actually a whole set of different problems about education, about the norms of public debate, about equality and about different European societies going their own way. So I am hoping the book can provide a kind of map for thinking about these problems, not in isolation from other problems and not as specific to Islam as a religion.

AB: Is discussing religion as vulnerability class, as you do in your article ‘Religion in the Law: The Disaggregation Approach’ (2015), a way to show how religion is connected to other categories?

CL: When I call it a vulnerable class, I show that religion can be very much like race, sexuality or gender. It can be a way to be defined through the eyes of others, a third-party identity. And in that way, it can be an obstacle to equality. I have discussions with my liberal friends who say “oh, religion is not at all like gender! And it is not like disability!” And no, of course, religion as an experience is not similar to gender or disability. But when you look at what it is like to be discriminated against, whether it is on grounds of religion, disability or sexual preference, it can be exactly the same thing. Of course being disabled is different from being a practicing Jew. The category ‘vulnerable class’ doesn’t say what religion is for the people who experience it. It is just that if you want to look at certain political and legal problems like discrimination, discrimination on grounds of religion is not so dissimilar from discrimination on grounds of disability. It is about forms of animosity or hostility that block access to equal opportunity. That is my formal definition and if you take that to be discrimination, there are many things that can stand in the way of equality and can be grounds for discrimination.

AB: Even though you are disaggregating, the focus of your book is still on religion, even though it is pulled apart. One could also argue other perspectives are more productive at this point. Post-colonial or migratory perspectives or those departing from the history of race might shed new light on issues that are now continuously examined through a religious-secular framework.

CL: I agree there are different paradigms to understand the current European paranoia. One of them is post-colonialism and another one is race theory, and I believe these are both very fertile. I am still interested in religion for the following reasons. When I finished my book on Republicanism, that is really where I left it: I had presented my view on the debates about Islam in Europe. And then I spent a year in Princeton and got involved in U.S debates. There, the European categories – of minority exclusion, problems of integration, etc. – are completely inoperative. When the debate is about autonomy for Christian associations in how they deal with women’s bodies, homosexuality, abortion, and sexuality, it is about the scope of religious autonomy. I don’t think the categories that do the explanatory work in Europe can do the same explanatory work there. So, if that’s the case we could say that the U.S. is completely different, which I don’t think is correct, or we could say that there is a blind spot within liberalism in how it thinks about religion. And that will be one of the facets of the Muslim question. Maybe not the main one, I agree, but if you want to understand the connections between European and U.S. debates I think they have to do with “the knot” of liberalism and religion. And that is what my book is about.

It was easy for the left in France and Europe, for all of us, to identify how we feel about the European obsession with Muslims. Quite clearly it is deeply problematic. It is connected to very problematic strands in European history. I think it was quite easy to see where we stood in these cases. I was more interested in cases in which I did not know where I stood. Whether to side with rights of the small religious group to be autonomous. Or whether to side with the dissident – the woman, or the LGBT person – within such an association. For the Left, for people who are thinking about these issues within a progressive, emancipatory framework, it is not as easy to take sides. That is why I loved being in the U.S. because these are harder cases to think about. Back in Paris, the kind of things the French go on about in the name of laïcité– whether women should be allowed to wear this or that – seem insignificant compared to what is at stake in the U.S. debates where you have large-scale denial of women’s rights. Not by small dominated minorities, but by very large, very powerful Christian majorities.