This week at the JHI Blog from our editorial team, “Bernini at the Borghese” by Cynthia Houng, and “Reading Saint Augustine in Toledo” from Spencer Weinreich. And some weekend reading from around the web.
Giuseppe Bianco, The Misadventures of the “Problem in “Philosophy” from kant to deleuze. (Journal of the Theoretical Humanities)
Jennifer Doudna and Samuel Sternberg, A Crack in Creation: The New Power to Control Evolution (Bodley Head Publishers).
Marion Fourcade and Kieran Healy “Seeing Like a Market” (Socio-Economic Review)
Peter Godfrey-Smith. Other Minds. The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness. (MacMillan Publishers)
Louis Menand, Fat Man. Herman Kahn and the nuclear age (The New Yorker)
Colin Burrow, “The End of the Epithet,” (LRB)
Adewale Maja-Pearce, “Where to Begin?” (LRB)
Amanda Petrusich, “The Cultural and Political Forces Behind Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer,” (New Yorker)
Fernanda Zamudio-Suaréz, “Historians Want to Be Cited in the Media, Here’s Why,” (The Chronicle)
Fanny Bugnon, “Aux armes (Else Dorlin, Se défendre)” (laviedesidee).
Jeff Weiss, “Dope Boy Dirges and Funky Funeral Music” (Liner Notes).
JL Schellenberg, “Philosophy’s First Steps” (aeon)
Clare Chambers, “Against Marriage” (aeon)
Kate Briggs, “How Do We Judge Translations? “(Lithub)
Jonathan Fuller,” Universal etiology, multifactorial diseases and the constitutive model of disease classification” (Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological & Biomedical Science).
Rachel Nuwer “ It’s the Latest in Conservation Tech.And It Wants to Suck Your Blood.”
(New York TImes)
Quinn Slobodian Globalists. The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism.
(Harvard University Press)
Scott St. George,” Mississippi rising” (Nature)
Hilton Als, “‘Angels in America’: Brilliant, Maddening, and Necessary” (New Yorker)
Lynne Jones, “An aid industry labouring under colonial structures is no help” (Aeon)
Rajat Singh, “A Search for Piety in Pity” (Lapham’s Quarterly)
Lucy Hughes-Hallett, “Why dictators find the lure of writing books irresistible” (New Statesman)
Phoebe Cripps, “Winter kept us warm” (TLS)
Darryl Pinckney, “Black Pictures” (NYRB)
Jeremiah Jenne, “Cosmopolitan Colonialism” (LARB)
Junot Diaz, “The Silence: The Legacy of Childhood Trauma” (New Yorker)
Jacob Soll, “How Islam Shapes the Enlightenment” (New Republic)
Susan Watkins, “Which Feminisms?” (New Left Review)
William Kentridge, “Mine (1991)” (Not Everything is New)
Ed Pavlic, ““Baldwin’s Lonely Country” (Boston Review)
Shih-ying Yang and Robert Sternberg “Conceptions of Intelligence in Ancient Chinese Philosophy” (JTPP)
Tim Chamberlain, “Struggling with Empire” (Waymarks)
By Contributing Editor Brendan Mackie
I’m a 34-year-old white male. Like many of my position and generation, my childhood cursus honorum was marked by a progression of beige video game boxes: PC, NES, Genesis, and then finally a Sega CD. Games mark my adulthood, too: I have played on average over 200 hours a year since 2013, according to the game client Steam. Video games are important economically, of course: the US games industry makes more than 20 billion dollars a year. Video games become movies: movies become video games. Games gobble up our increasingly besieged attention. Witness the legions of people playing casual games on their phones in buses and airplanes and waiting rooms. Two thirds of American parents play video games with their children every week—compare that with the forty percent of adults who go to church in that time period. ‘Gamer’ has become an identity, a subculture, and a market segment.
Yet there’s something disappointing and superficial about how we talk about video games. Take the game review. Indeed, the problem of the game review has become a subgenre of think-piece in its own right. Review websites give games unfairly favorable coverage in exchange for access and advertising from the big games companies; reviewers write under deadlines so tight they can’t fully understand the games they review. But these complaints miss the point. Game reviews today usually seek little more than to rate how good or bad a game is, they are merely points that add up to some future Metacritic score.
Is this lack of high game criticism really a problem? Media scholar Alexander R. Galloway finds it useful. It allows one to “approach video games today as a type of beautifully undisturbed processing of contemporary life, as yet unmarred by bourgeois exegeses of the format.” Because video games have not yet been endlessly criticized, theorized, and institutionalized, they can serve as an un-self-conscious mirror of the culture at large. There has been a fair share of games criticism, of course. It’s just that gaming culture seems heroically resistant to it, reveling in an unreformed cultural adolescence of guns, muscles, masculinity, and explosions.
The problem is that ‘we’—gamers, game critics, the cultural public, whatever—have misunderstood what kind of art video games are. We take for granted what makes video games fun and engaging, when the question should be the start of our inquiries. Before we answer it, our criticism is going to fall flat, because it’s going to be criticizing the wrong thing.
The big difference is that games, unlike movies or books, are not self-contained experiences. Instead they are interactions between players and complicated algorithmic systems. A particular game looks different, plays different, takes different amounts of time, is harder or easier, is familiar or unfamiliar, or is more or less fun or boring, depending on the player, the system they are playing on, and the situation they are playing in. (I am not discounting the importance of the viewing subject in other art forms, of course—instead I’m insisting that the interactive nature of video games makes the experience radically different for different people.) The search for an objective rating of a game is flawed, then, because it assumes that there is just one kind of way to play the game that can be summed up by a single rating. Sites like Metacritic implicitly operate on a kind of convergence theory of aesthetics. Although individual reviews may get ratings wrong, the wisdom of the crowd will get ratings right. But to assess the quality of a game is to assess a relationship—a relationship that varies widely between players. For example, when a game gets a bad review, its boosters will often complain that the reviewer just didn’t understand the genre. The problem wasn’t the algorithmic system, but the operator.
Similarly, criticism that looks only at the content of games while ignoring the play of games misses the point. In the Practice of Everyday Life, French philosopher Michel de Certeau made much of how individuals subvert the grid-like certainty of the planned, modern city by beating desire paths through lawns and day-dreaming while staring at ads on the subway. Modern consumers remix modern life, becoming “poets of their own acts, silent discoverers of their own paths in the jungle of functionalist rationality.” The pleasure of gaming foregrounds this pleasure. To enjoy the game, a gamer relies on (as de Certeau calls them) the “clever tricks, knowing how to get away with things ‘hunter’s cunning’, maneuvers, polymorphic simulations, joyful discoveries, poetic as well as warlike.” But criticism of content mostly looks at the grid, the background decorations that the player plays against—and so criticism of content can be too easily dismissed.
Take the Civilization series, an example of the 4X genre (“eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate”.) In Civilization, the player takes control of a real-world historical civilization (Romans, Aztecs, Dutch). You settle cities, research technology, and wage war against other civilizations in a quest to conquer the world or escape from it on a mission to Mars. The content of the Civilization series has been the subject of frequent criticism—it trades in racist, imperialist tropes; it presents an inflexible stadial view of history; it relishes too much in war. And while this criticism is appropriate, it is hard to see what it seeks to accomplish. People play the game only in part for the content—much more, they play the game for the game itself: the development and slow unfurling of grand plans that are constantly hemmed in by the more powerful computer player; the pleasure of tending to your cities and people; the slow unrolling of new abilities and challenges; players play the game seeking a stage on which to display their own ‘hunter’s cunning.’ A criticism of the content of these games in other words is akin to criticizing the cartoon characters branding a Las Vegas slot machine.
We need to develop a new kind of high games criticism that directly confronts the play of the game, which is often more than a little rotten. On a personal note, every game I have ever loved has inspired in me an equal and opposite hatred. Over hours that have felt like minutes my beloved games have sunk me into bright well-ordered worlds with quests, objectives, enemies, allies, abilities, progression trees, and choices. In those games that have come to compel me, my actions have mattered in solid predictable ways—but my actions at the same time have been inconsequential and weightless. I look back on those 200 hours a year I have spent gaming as empty, if not really wasted. Why have I spent so much time in front of these enthralling glowing rectangles? Criticism of games needs to confront this pleasure that compels so desperately, this pleasure that is not so much entertaining as it is endlessly repeatable. Take the example of the proletariat of global gaming culture: the gold farmer, people in poor countries who make money by generating in-game currency, items, and characters to sell to people in rich countries. After working ten, twelve hour shifts, many of these gold farmers unwind—by playing video games. It is as if the power loom worker lets off steam by sitting down again at the power loom.
We can see the beginnings of this kind of criticism about video game pleasure in the game livestream. The genre is surprisingly popular. PewDiePie, who with over 61 million subscribers is the biggest YouTuber on earth, makes much of his content doing game livestreams. When popular rapper Drake livestreamed the game Fortnite this March, he was watched by over 635,000 people. The livestreaming service Twitch has about 600 million viewers annually. The genre seems like it would be difficult to get into for anyone except self-described gamers—but I encourage readers, even those who are completely unfamiliar with videogames, to watch a live-stream while they fold laundry or do something else mindless—it is an easy entertainment. (I recommend the videos by the team at Polygon.)
Good livestreamers exude an easy affability. Their pace is slow, trundling back over itself again and again the same way an idle conversation unfolds over breakfast—punctuated by panic, of course, by struggle, by explosions and kill screens, by bursts of explicative—but over time the struggle becomes generic and familiar, even comforting, as it slots into the predictable pattern of the game. The very best livestreamers offer examples of how to enjoy the games that they play. A number of games, like the Binding of Isaac, owe their popularity to streamers whose play demonstrated novel ways of having fun in the game. In foregrounding this subjective pleasure of the game, livestreamers open up the possibility to critique the relationship the gamer has with the system—to talk about the paths people walk in games, rather than the grid.
But this possibility has not by and large been taken. Video game writing can take a page from these livestreamers and begin to confront the subjective experience of gaming—instead of engaging in the vain search for some kind of objective game review, or some kind of politically potent content criticism. This might go some way of putting games where they belong, alongside movies, music, and all art—not as objects worthy of slavish veneration or puritanical denunciation—but as objects of power and danger.
Here are a few interesting articles and pieces we found around the web this week. If you come across something that other intellectual historians might enjoy, please let us know in the comments section.
Taylor M. Wilcox, Michael K. Schwartz, Winsor H. Lowe, Evolutionary Community Ecology: Time to Think Outside the (Taxonomic) Box. (TREE)
Joshua Rothman, Are We Already Living in Virtual Reality? (New Yorker)
Christiane Weirauch, Randall T. Schuh, Gerasimos Cassis and Ward C. Wheeler. Revisiting habitat and lifestyle transitions in Heteroptera (Insecta: Hemiptera): insights from a combined morphological and molecular phylogeny. (Cladistics)
David Reich, Social Inequality Leaves a Genetic Mark. (Nautilus)
Lewis Gordon, Black Issues in Philosophy: A Conversation on Get Out (Blog of the APA)
Louis Hanson, The Importance of Women in a Queer Man’s Life (Out Magazine)
Michael Sandel, Robert B. Reich’s Recipe for a Just Society (The New York Times Book Review)
Nimmi Crenshaw, interview with Kimberlé Crenshaw (Guernica)
David Peace, “There’d Be Dragons” (TLS)
Natalie Lawrence, “Fallen Angels” (Public Domain Review)
Emily Temple, “When Marguerite Duras got kicked out of the Communist Party” (LitHub)
Rana Dasgupta, “The Demise of the Nation State,” (Guardian)
Rosemary Hill, “What Does She Think She Looks Like?,” (LRB)
Alexis Okeowo, “An Activist Filmmaker Tackles Patriarchy in Pakistan,” (New Yorker)
“The Awakening: Women and Power in the Academy,” (The Chronicle)
Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins, “Le tournant néoconservateur en France,” (Lava)
This Art Newspaper story on the gender imbalance in TEFAF’s upper ranks reminded me that our experiences of art are always deeply personal and subjective. For me, questions of gender balance and representation are not questions of identity politics. Rather, they are entwined with my own personal desire to encounter a breadth of subjectivities in writing and scholarship–and through that, come to know, and contemplate, a range of possible experiences, thoughts, and judgments quite unlike my own.
Today, we take it mostly for granted that everyone has the faculties–and therefore the right–to pass judgment on art. It was not always a given that everyone had the faculties to judge art. Connoisseurship developed, over the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, into a rarefied pursuit, open only to experts. Bernard Berenson represents the ur-connoisseur. Berenson came as close as a human possibly could to the platonic ideal of the connoisseur. But it was his assistant and protege, Kenneth Clark, who bridged the gap between the compressed world of the expert and a broader, more workaday world, introducing the mysteries of his discipline to a general audience. Clark’s 1969 BBC series “Civilization: A Personal View by Kenneth Clark” attracted millions of viewers on both sides of the Atlantic. In his review of James Stourton’s biography of Clark, Richard Dorment noted that today, Clark’s BBC series “is largely forgotten.”
Dorment argues that Clark was forgotten because his approach was eclipsed by the rise of “theory-based art history.” Perhaps. Or perhaps it is because we no longer live in a time where we require men “in tweed suits with bad teeth and an upper-crust accent” to explain art to us. Entry into art history no longer requires some combination of wealth, connections, and personal charm (Berenson had two of the three, and Clark had it all). At least, I like to think this is true. And this shift has also changed the tenor of the scholarship.
By Guest Contributor Trevor Jackson
The Piketty phenomenon needs no introduction: Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2014) remains the best-selling book ever published by Harvard University Press, and since it appeared in English in 2014, Thomas Piketty and his small group of frequent collaborators have turned up everywhere. There is Piketty, writing a column in Le Monde, or anatomizing the rise of private capital in China, or charting the emergence of Russian oligarchs. This ubiquity is unprecedented: with the exceptions of Branko Milanovic and the late Anthony Atkinson, the study of inequality had languished during the latter half of the twentieth century. The crisis of 2008 certainly catalyzed a popular and scholarly interest in questions of distribution, corruption, and financialization; many economists (re)turned to the history of the Great Depression, and in 2013 the New York Times famously announced the arrival of the “history of capitalism.” But inequality continued to be the preoccupation mostly of development economists who were interested in poverty reduction. Capital in the Twenty-First Century was heralded as a kind of “unified field theory” of inequality, finally producing a single model that would be of use to historians, policymakers, and economists alike. Nothing about inequality has changed since 2014, except that everything has gotten worse, and every day it has become a bit more obvious that the central unifying characteristic of our contemporary moment is the experience of some form of inequality. Since Piketty’s book, we have had the rare opportunity of watching a discipline in the process of self-formation. Who will write and teach about inequality, and who will be their audience? What kinds of evidence will be admissible, intelligible, and valuable? What will be the accepted practices of this new field, and what will be its central animating questions? After Piketty, a new volume of essays, provides one possible answer, while Walter Scheidel’s new book The Great Leveler points in a very different direction.
Piketty’s influence is due in part to how easy his 685-page argument is to understand, and to communicate. Inequality is the result of two variables: g, the overall rate of economic growth, and r, the rate of return on capital. If r is greater than g, the owners of capital will be receiving income faster than the overall economy is growing, meaning they will get richer faster than everyone else, and inequality will increase. By Piketty’s estimation, throughout most of human history, r hovered around 5%, while g was negligible. The result was persistent inequality, and since wealth tends to be patrimonial, a closed elite passed down their unequal position generation to generation across centuries. The sole exception was 1945-1970, when a tremendous amount of elite wealth had been destroyed by the world wars and the Great Depression, and when global economic growth was abnormally high. Then, and only then, did the world become more equal. That period also coincided with the professionalization of economics and history, creating a foundational cohort of scholars and policymakers who believed that increasing equality was the norm rather than the aberration. Since the 1970s the return to free international capital flows has brought instability and reduced wage growth, dragging down g, while producing high rates of capital income, driving up r, and returning the world to the pre-1914 norm of patrimonial inequality. He builds this case through pioneering work in creating datasets for top incomes and wealth ownership, mostly in Britain, France, and the United States since about 1800. He supports his data with examples from literary sources like Balzac and Jane Austen, and that exquisite footnote in Ch. 11 to a plot twist in Season 4 of Desperate Housewives (Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, 621, n. 52).
Piketty consciously made both a substantive and a methodological intervention, and his last lines are something between a gentle scold and a call to arms:
To be sure, the principle of specialization is sound and surely makes it legitimate for some scholars to do research that does not depend on statistical series…Yet it seems to me that all social scientists, all journalists and commentators, all activists in the unions and in politics of whatever stripe, and especially all citizens should take a serious interest in money, its measurement, the facts surrounding it, and its history. Those who have a lot of it never fail to defend their interests. Refusing to deal with numbers rarely serves the interest of the least well-off (Piketty, Capital, 577).
Economists are certainly interested in money and its measurement, and three of them edited a collection entitled After Piketty, which contains some 22 essays by 25 people. One is by Piketty’s translator and one is a response by Piketty himself. One author is a historian, one an urban geographer, and one a political scientist. The rest are economists from academia, the Federal Reserve, the World Bank, think tanks, and Moody’s financial services company. Three of the economists are Nobel laureates; another is a PhD candidate. This set of contributors is a reasonable synecdoche of Piketty’s impact: the discussion of inequality, both as a historical phenomenon and a contemporary policy problem, is dominated by economists of various specialties and career stages.
The contributors to After Piketty critique his mathematical modeling, his variable specifications, his assumptions about human behavior, and the real-world policy implications of his work. Their approach is to accept his basic intuition that capitalism contains an inherent tendency towards inequality. Since capitalism is a multidimensional social system that is embedded in different times and places, specialists should therefore refine his models and investigate the local policies, politics, and institutions that constitute particular variants of capitalism. Some of these essays are ferociously technical: the reader will not get through Divesh Raval’s essay on what is wrong with Piketty’s model without taking the occasional derivative of a natural logarithm, and perhaps half the essays contain regression output tables. Historians are likely to be nonplussed by sentences like this one:
Here captures historically determined institutions for group G, is average wealth for group G in period t and thus represents endowments, is the wealth of individual i in group G in time period s, and is the idiosyncratic shock to i’s wealth in group G in time period s, where the shock has a mean zero with variance”(Derenoncourt, “Historical Origins of Global Inequality,” in After Piketty, 495).
But if historians are serious about producing new approaches to inequality, the difficulty is no excuse. These economists have ensured that the new study of inequality is predicated on a common language. It is mostly unintelligible to outsiders, with its strange mathematical declensions and its statistical conjugations, but it means that the field is predicated on evaluating, critiquing, and replicating each other’s work across specialties, which is appropriate for a phenomenon as universal as inequality. Perhaps the salience of inequality justifies learning to read, if not to speak, this language.
I am not the only historian to think so: Patrick Manning devoted his presidential address at the 2017 AHA meeting to the need for new ways of studying the history of inequality. So far his call seems to have been as unheeded as Barbara Weinstein’s 2007 presidential address to the AHA on “Developing Inequality” because the 2018 AHA meeting had only one panel on inequality. This has been a surprising turn of events. I, for one, was convinced in 2014 that the new study of inequality would be dominated by historians, using Piketty’s easily understood model and adding their deep contextual knowledge to his test cases of France, the UK, and the US. After decades of writing histories of the ordering, quantifying, discourse-producing, population-governing state, it seemed time for historians to turn their attention to the practices, discourses, and powers of the global 1%. That mostly has not happened.
Instead of historians applying Piketty’s model, economists have continued to search for empirical refinement. Going a step further than the authors of After Piketty, Richard Sutch has tried to replicate Piketty’s results with different data. Not data from a different place or a different context to try to generalize Piketty’s work away from rich countries in the North Atlantic, but rather a direct attempt at the scientific act of greater precision through repeating the same experiment. Sutch has his own set of top income data for the United States from 1810 to 2010, which he believes is more reliable than Piketty’s data and paints a different picture. Many of Piketty’s most striking claims are the result of patching together different sources of data, based on a series of (reasonable) assumptions about how households divide wealth and whether decadal averages are appropriate for smoothing out noisy data. Sutch finds that the result of Piketty’s splicing and interpolating is an inflation of the top 10% wealth share in 1870-1970, and an extrapolation of the 19th-century 1% wealth share from a single antebellum data point. He ends on a striking note, urging economists to emulate historians and not take historical statistics as given (Sutch, “One Percent Across Two Centuries,” 604).
It is striking that a historian did not produce the most ambitious history of inequality written since 2014. Walter Scheidel is a Professor of Classics and a Fellow in Human Biology at Stanford and has been a prolific writer of books that mostly focus on the demography of ancient Rome. His new book The Great Leveler also builds on Piketty’s work, but in a very different way than the economist-heavy discussions of After Piketty. The subtitle is Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century, and Scheidel absolutely means it. He traces trends in inequality in different societies across all recorded history in an effort to prove a simple but terrifying thesis: the natural tendency for human society is that inequality will steadily and inexorably increase through the process of economic growth, and only total violent catastrophe like world wars, wholesale social revolutions, or galloping pandemics have ever reduced inequality. Piketty alluded to this possibility (Piketty, Capital, 146-50 and 275), but did not much dwell on it, so Scheidel is attempting to complete Piketty’s work by providing a historical answer to the question everyone asks after reading Piketty: what should we do?
The reader of The Great Leveler will find evidence drawn from, inter alia, the Akkadians of 24th century BCE (Scheidel, Great Leveler, 56-7) and the Sokoto caliphate of 19th century Nigeria (ibid, 61), changes in house sizes in ancient Rome (ibid, 267-9), the impact of the American Civil War on Southern landed wealth (ibid, 174-7), and the zaibatsu of postwar Japan (ibid, 120-5). The core of the book is four sections on what Scheidel calls the “four horsemen” of leveling: total war (meaning only the First and Second World Wars), totalizing social revolutions (meaning communism), state collapse (here featuring a comparison of Tang China and Rome), and plague (with the Black Death of course taking the lead). Only these mechanisms have ever reduced inequality, and even then, only in their most extreme forms: Scheidel reckons that the American Civil War and the French Revolution, for instance, probably either had no effect or actually increased inequality. Final chapters discuss and dismiss education, democracy, land reform, and economic growth as potential engines for reducing inequality. There is no wiggle room: “Causation is as clear as it can be,” he writes in his chapter on communism: “No violence, no leveling.” (Scheidel, Great Leveler, 223).
But Scheidel is not advocating the dictatorship of the proletariat: he seldom refers to communists without an introductory adjective like “raving” or “mass-murdering.” The chapter on communism is a standard list of the crimes of Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot, demonstrating that violence not only reduces inequality through destroying elites and their wealth, but that only the continued unremitting application of violence prevents the otherwise natural return of inequality. For Scheidel, increases in inequality are brought about through peaceable market mechanisms, like technology and globalization rather than, say, plunder or empire or expropriation. If indeed it makes sense to ascribe, as Scheidel does, one hundred million deaths to the leveling ambitions of communism, one wonders whether slavery, imperialism, and all manner of elite violence and dispossession from the Herero genocide to the Bengal famine were coincidental with or an integral part of maintaining the apparently normal persistence of inequality. This strange blindness to what surely is the historical norm of continual elite violence, when paired with the absence of gentler communist success stories in places like Kerala or West Bengal, creates a sort of dissonance: erudition in cutting-edge economics research paired with some historiographical positions from the late Cold War.
For all its ambition and the enthusiasm of its reception, The Great Leveler probably does not show us the future of studying inequality, and not only because Scheidel’s erudition would be difficult to emulate. Unrepeatable and unexpandable, The Great Leveler seems to allow for no further development, nowhere left to go. But, even further, the study of inequality is animated by a moral imperative: that inequality represents a real threat to the achievements of human society, and something—anything—can and must be done to fix it. In today’s world, Scheidel writes, the Four Horsemen have dismounted (Scheidel, Great Leveler, 436), and their return is neither possible nor desirable. If Scheidel is right, then the new study of inequality will become like cosmology: interesting but descriptive. If After Piketty and Sutch are right, there is a lot of work to do, but it will be done by and for economists inside and outside of academia. Neither option seems to be what Piketty had in mind.
Trevor Jackson received his PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, where he has taught the history of inequality. He researches the history of financial crisis and economic impunity in early modern Europe.
In today’s podcast, our Editor Sarah Dunstan speaks with Professor Stefanos Geroulanos about his latest book Transparency in Postwar France: A Critical History of the Present (Stanford University Press, 2017).
A note on the music in this podcast:
The music from this podcast comes from the song Fallen composed by the American film director and composer, John Carpenter. It is from his Lost Themes album which was released in 2015 by the Sacred Bones record.
By Contributing Writer Molly Wilder
Autonomous man is–and should be–self-sufficient, independent, and self-reliant, a self-realizing individual who directs his efforts towards maximizing his personal gains. His independence is under constant threat from other (equally self-serving) individuals: hence he devises rules to protect himself from intrusion. Talk of rights, rational self-interest, expedience, and efficiency permeates his moral, social, and political discourse. (Lorraine Code 1991, What Can She Know? Feminist Theory and the Construction of Knowledge, p78)
Thus Lorraine Code describes the conception of autonomy in the popular imagination–and often in the academy as well. This conception of autonomy is obsessed with the self, as evidenced by the language Code uses to articulate it: “self-sufficient,” “self-reliant,” “self-realizing,” and “rational self-interest.” And the word ‘autonomous’ originally meant “self-rule” (derived from the Greek αὐτόνομος, from αὐτο-, ‘self’, and νόμος, ‘rule, law’). The image of the self that Code evokes is that of a citadel, forever warding off external attacks. These attacks are characterized as coming primarily from contact with other people—suggesting that relationships with other people are in themselves dangerous to the self. Though relationships may be valuable in some ways, they are a constant threat to the self’s interests.
Feminist philosophers have largely found this conception both accurate and deeply problematic. Though some feminists have therefore rejected the value of autonomy all together, many have instead sought to reclaim autonomy as a feminist value. Since the late 1980s, feminists have proposed and argued for a myriad of alternative conceptions of autonomy, which have collectively come to be known as theories of “relational autonomy.”
Theories of relational autonomy vary widely. Some, like Marilyn Friedman’s, still recognize the value of independence and conceive of autonomy as an internal procedure that is available to people of many different beliefs and circumstances. Such an internal procedure requires some sort of critical reflection on attitudes and actions, but places no limits on the outcome of the procedure. Thus, this sort of procedure makes it possible for a person to count as autonomous even if she endorses attitudes or actions that may seem incongruous with a liberal Western image of autonomy, such as discounting her own right to be respected or remaining in an abusive relationship. In contrast, theories like Mariana Oshana’s put stringent requirements on the kind of actual practical control necessary for autonomy, significantly limiting those who can count as autonomous. Such theories might consider a person autonomous only if her circumstances meet certain conditions, such as economic independence or a wide range of available social opportunities—conditions that might not be met, for example, by a person in an abusive relationship.
And there are theories that aim somewhere in the middle, such as Andrea Westlund’s, whose conception of autonomy requires some accountability and connection to the outside world, but does so in a way that provides latitude for many different belief systems and social circumstances. Specifically, on Westlund’s account, a person is autonomous only if she holds herself open to criticism from other people. While this dialogical accountability is not a purely internal procedure like Friedman’s, as it involves people other than the agent herself, it does not inherently limit the outcome of the procedure as Oshana’s does. See this collection of essays for more on the theories of Friedman, Oshana, and Westlund, as well as other contemporary theorists of relational autonomy.
These theories, while diverse, share a rejection of the idea that autonomy is inherently threatened by relationships with others. On the contrary, they argue that certain relationships are in fact necessary to the development of autonomy, its maintenance, or both. These theories have provided a much needed new perspective on the concept of autonomy, and continue to provide new insights, particularly with respect to understanding the effect of oppression on selves.
But their core idea, that autonomy requires relationships, is an old one. Long before autonomy became so closely aligned with the protection of the self from others, a prominent strain of philosophy recognized relationships with others as crucial to the well-being of the self—rather than as a threat. To illustrate, consider these excerpts from an ancient philosopher, Aristotle, and a modern philosopher, Spinoza.
For Aristotle, the ultimate good in life, a kind of long-term happiness, is a self-sufficient good. The word he uses is ‘αὐτάρκης’ (derived from αὐτο-, “self,” and ἀρκέω, “to suffice”). He clarifies: “And by self-sufficient we mean not what suffices for oneself alone, living one’s life as a hermit, but also with parents and children and a wife, and friends and fellow citizens generally, since the human being is by nature meant for a city.” (Nicomachean Ethics, 1097b9-11, tr. Joe Sachs) Aristotle, then, explicitly understands self-sufficiency with respect to happiness to require certain kinds of relationships—those of family, friends, and political compatriots.
Though Aristotle does not discuss the concept of autonomy, this passage and others suggest that his ideal of independence was one that required intimate relationships, rather than being threatened by them. Aristotle famously wrote of humans as “political animals.” On a first reading of this phrase, it is apparent that humans are political simply in the sense that they tend to form social institutions by which to govern themselves. But the phrase might also be read to suggest that even at their most independent, humans are the kind of animals that rely on one another.
Spinoza, likewise, identifies the well-being of the self with happiness, and he argues that happiness consists in having the power to seek and acquire what is advantageous to oneself. One might reasonably summarize Spinoza’s view of happiness as the achievement of one’s rational self-interest. For a contemporary reader, Spinoza’s language naturally evokes the conception of autonomy articulated by Code, a conception in which the wellbeing of the self is naturally threatened by others.
Yet Spinoza explicitly argues that “nothing is more advantageous to man than man.” (Ethics, P18, Sch., trans. Samuel Shirley) On Spinoza’s view the only effective, and therefore rational, way for individual to seek her own advantage is with the help of others. In general, Spinoza criticizes those thoughts and emotions that push people apart—and he argues that when we fall prey to these things, we not only lose power, but we fail to act in the interest of our true selves. An individual’s true self-interest, he argues, is necessarily aligned with the true self-interest of others.
The examples I’ve given remind us that, despite the apparent radicalism of arguing that the concept of autonomy is inherently relational in our contemporary cultural context, the conjunction of terms of self and terms of relationality is both ancient and long-lived. The very concepts that Code uses to describe the kind of autonomy that sees relationships as a threat—self-sufficiency and rational self-interest—were once thought of as concepts that in fact required relationships.
Thirty years after she wrote it, Code’s depiction of autonomy as an atomistic individualism threatened by others still well-captures the general sense Americans have of autonomy. Although feminist philosophers have been fairly successful in gaining wide recognition of the importance of relationships to autonomy among philosophers who study autonomy, their impact has not been as wide as might be expected given the strength of their arguments. One major exception has been the field of bioethics, in which the discussion of feminist theories of relational autonomy is quite lively. Yet these theories have not been robustly taken up in other professional fields such as business or legal ethics. Nor have they been taken up in a pervasive way in mainstream philosophical ethics or political theory.
Moreover, they have been decidedly less successful in changing the popular conception of autonomy, particularly within the United States, where the threatened-self conception of autonomy is so revered in the nation’s mythology. Indeed, many Americans might be surprised to learn about the history of this conception and its relative novelty. While some philosophers are already doing this, perhaps it would be fruitful in going forward for people in all fields to spend some time tracing the development of their conceptions of autonomy and self—they might be surprised at what they find.
Perhaps one reason relational theories haven’t been taken up is because of their feminist origins. Some of the wariness, surely, is simply sexism, both explicit and implicit. But beyond that, there may be a perception that the theories are specifically tied to the interests of women. Yet, to borrow a delightfully biting phrase from Spinoza, if someone were to pay a modicum of attention, they would see that is not the case. The historical precursors of their ideas demonstrate this. While the contemporary standard bearers of relational autonomy may be feminists, the basic ideas are as old and general as philosophy itself, and if the ideas are true, they should prompt Americans to seriously reconsider their national assumptions and priorities. If autonomy is in fact relational, it calls into question standard American justifications and understandings of a huge array of policies and practices, everything from gun control to education to marriage.
Molly has just received her law degree from Georgetown University Law Center and is currently developing a dissertation that brings together the professional ethics of lawyers, neo-Aristotelian virtue ethics, and feminist theories of relational autonomy. She wants to know, can you be a (really) good person and a (really) good lawyer at the same time? Beyond her dissertation, Molly has varied philosophical interests, including philosophy of tort law, children’s rights, privacy, and communication. When not philosophizing, Molly enjoys reading children’s fantasy, finding places to eat great vegan food, and engaging in witty banter.
Here are a few pieces that have caught the attention of our editorial team this week:
Andy Beckett, “Post-Work: The Radical Idea of a World Without Jobs,” (Guardian)
Alison Croggan, “Now The Sky is Empty,” (overland)
Richard Eldridge, “What Was Liberal Education?” (LARB)
Julie Philipps, “The Subversive Imagination of Ursuala K. Le Guin,” (New Yorker)
Martin Puchner, “The Technological Shift Behind the World’s First Novel” (The Atlantic)
Robert Bird, “Gateless Fortress” (TLS)
Michael Prodger, “The Cavalier Collection” (New Statesman)
Morten Høi Jensen, “Darwin on Endless Trial,” (LARB)
Simon Callow, “The Emperor Robeson” (NYRB)
Kathryn Schulz, “The Lost Giant of American Literature” (New Yorker)
Charlotte Gordon, “Mary Shelley: Abandoned by her creator and rejected by society” (LitHub)
Savannah Marquardt, “The Nashville Parthenon Glorifies Ancient Greece — and the Confederacy” (Eidolon)
Lisa Bitel, “What a medieval love saga says about modern-day sexual harassment” (The Conversation)
Maximillian Alvarez, “The Year History Died” (The Baffler)
D.J. Fraser, “I Swear to Be Your Citizen Artist” (Canadian Art)
Jack Halberstam, “Towards a Trans* Feminism” (Boston Review)
Margarita Rosa, “Du’as of the Enslaved: The Malê Slave Rebellion in Bahía, Brazil” (Yaqeen Institute)
Shuja Haider, “Postmodernism Did Not Take Place” (Viewpoint).
Daniel Rodgers, Julia Ott, Mike Konczal, NDB Connolly, Timothy Shenk, Forum on Rodgers and ‘Neoliberalism.’ (Dissent).
Colette Shade, “How to Build a Segregated City” (Splinter).
David Shaftel, “All Good Magazines Go to Heaven” (NYTStyle).