The Origins of Autonomy: Not as Lonesome as You Might Expect

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.

What We’re Reading: Week of 22nd January.

The Orange Book

The Orange Book by Allen Tucker. Undated oil on canvas.

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).



Firebrand Infrastructures: Insights from the Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry Postgraduate Workshop

by guest contributor Alison McManus 

For less populated fields of history, a conference designed for intellectual exchange can occasionally double as an existence proof. The workshop for the Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry must have appeared to serve that double function when, during the concluding remarks, attendees addressed the question, “Why does the academy no longer advertise for historians of chemistry?” While I cannot dispute the relative lack of job searches that cater specifically to my chosen field, I will note the impression of that field I gleaned from this month’s SHAC workshop was anything but obscurity. To the contrary, my impression was one of robust materiality, critical for historical studies of science and of biology in particular.

Perhaps reflecting Europe’s special relationship with alchemy, the Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry held its first seven Postgraduate Workshops on the East side of the Atlantic. The eighth annual workshop was held in the United States for the first time on December 1st and 2nd at the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia. This year’s workshop was titled “(Al)Chemical Laboratories: Imagining and Creating Scientific Work-Spaces.” As a graduate student, I was fortunate to attend the second day of the workshop, which emphasized chemistry in the 20th century. Focusing on materials, practices, and infrastructure, the SHAC workshop demonstrated the utility of fine-grained technical attention in the history of chemistry. Anchored in physical detail, the history of chemistry came alive through an alchemical demonstration, and when paired with the history of 20th-century biology, it imbued grander narratives of development with much-needed empirical nuance.

In historical studies of science, the relationship between 20th-century chemistry and biology has taken a variety of forms, few of which have been favorable for the former discipline. In Lavoisier and the Chemistry of Life (1987), Frederic Lawrence Holmes famously attributed Lavoisier’s chemical system to the influence of biological theories of respiration. Given Lavoisier’s foundational role in modern chemistry, Holmes implicitly recognized biology as the progenitor of modern chemistry itself. At SHAC, keynote speaker Angela Creager (Princeton) advocated a reversal of this causality. Her address and upcoming Ambix paper, “A Chemical Reaction to the History of Biology,” began with a simple observation: historians of science write the history of 20th century biology in one of three ways, as the story of genetics, of evolution, or of the neo-Darwinian synthesis of the two. Creager characterized Ernst Mayr’s The Growth of Biological Thought (1985) as a founding example of the third genre, in which genetics offers a mechanism to reconcile Mendelian heredity with Darwinian natural selection.

Drawing from scholars such as Vasiliki Smocovitis and Joe Cain, Creager suggested that teleological narratives of synthesis marginalize biological fields less preoccupied with issues of heredity, including physiology, ecology, and endocrinology. Such an historiographical oversight may be political in origin; biological subdisciplines further afield from evolutionary theory simply lack comparable socio-political clout. Here chemistry offers a solution. By focusing on material practices and laboratory infrastructure, Creager illuminated the “cryptic centrality” of chemistry to 20th century biology, at once reversing Holmes’s causal account and expanding the list of relevant biological subdisciplines beyond genetics and evolutionary theory. In line with her earlier work on radioisotopes, Creager recounted the story of G. Evelyn Hutchinson’s 1940s limnological experiments, in which radioisotopes enabled the study of phosphorus cycling in pond ecosystems. The centrality of chemical infrastructure to Hutchinson’s experiments suggested that chemistry did not merely act as cousin or offspring of 20th-century biology but rather allowed it new tools for making sense of life.

Appropriately, the final panel at SHAC featured two scholars working outside genetics and evolutionary biology. Gina Surita (Princeton) discussed Elwood V. Jensen’s discovery of the estrogen receptor, and CHF Fellow Lijing Jiang presented her research on Socialist China’s race to synthesize insulin during the Great Leap Forward. Juxtaposed with Creager’s keynote address, Jiang’s research lent the impression that the story of neo-Darwinian synthesis may resonate rather little with Chinese histories of 20th century biology. Due to the influence of Lysenkoism in Socialist China, the Insulin Project coincided with a ban on genetic engineering. Thus a high-profile research campaign operated in the absence of one major element of the historiographical canon.

alison mcmanus piece_alchemy

The final step of Jennifer Rampling’s and Lawrence Principe’s alchemical demonstration, in which the “gliding fire” corresponds to the gradual oxidation of lead. Image courtesy of Angela Creager.

The workshop concluded with a joint alchemical talk and presentation by Jennifer Rampling (Princeton) and Lawrence Principe (Johns Hopkins). Together with William Newman, Principe pioneered the genre of alchemical reenactment in the late 1980s and early 1990s. When applied to alchemical manuscripts, his chemical training has elucidated the central role of contaminants in the success of alchemical experiments, and in so doing, it has cast alchemy as an experimental rather than wholly imaginative field. Taking textual correspondence to reality as a given, Principe and Rampling sought to recreate Sam Norton’s 16th-century alchemical synthesis of the “vegetable stone,” a substance widely revered for its life-giving properties. Successful replication depended upon both historical and chemical expertise. Rampling recently demonstrated that an essential ingredient known to the alchemists as “sericon” in fact represented two possible ingredients, red lead and antimony, depending upon the age of the alchemical recipe. These components were identified by tracing the recipe’s historical origins. Likewise, Principe’s knowledge of silver refining suggested that copper was an essential contaminant that allowed the recipe to proceed as described.

Experiencing an alchemical reenactment was an exercise in humility. While I cannot attest to the reinvigorating properties of the “vegetable stone” (such claims must surely be relegated to the realm of alchemists’ imaginations), I was nonetheless struck by the correspondence between textual description and my own empirical observations. Sam Norton’s seemingly imaginative claim that “Fire will glide” through grey feces in the final step mapped quite reasonably onto the oxidation of lead, in which patches of bright orange and yellow lead (II, IV) oxide expanded slowly across grey powder. Furthermore, Principe was quick to emphasize a central problem in alchemical reenactments, namely the issue of accounting for failed replication. A gap between historical text and contemporary practice may reflect a misleading claim by the alchemist, but alternately, one may fault the modern experimenter’s chemical and historical competence. Nevertheless, relentless experimentation with material alchemy offers a means to close the gap.


At the conclusion of the workshop, I found myself attempting to reconcile a dissonance between the status of the discipline and the expository and corrective work underway within it. I now wonder to what extent that dissonance might itself be productive. During the SHAC workshop, the material history of chemistry operated both for its own sake and as a much-needed auxiliary to the history of biology. Surely, scholars working in the history of chemistry may yet expect to search for jobs defined primarily by period or region. Still, I might suggest that the lack of “historian of chemistry” jobs is far more pertinent to academics’ self-fashioning than the ranking of the field’s relevance. In providing infrastructure to 20th-century biology, the discipline of chemistry at once makes itself essential and leaves itself vulnerable to being overlooked. Restoring attention to these infrastructural elements enables the more modest field to issue a correction from below. In this sense, might humble fields be particularly insightful ones?

Alison McManus is a PhD student in History of Science at Princeton University, where she studies 20th century chemical sciences. She is particularly interested in the development and deployment of chemical weapons technologies.

What We’re Reading: Week of 15th January.


Girl Reading by Georgios Jakobides c. 1882.

Here are a few pieces that have caught the attention of our editorial team this week:


Brandon M. Terry, “MLK Now” (Boston Review)

Teresa Kroeger et al., “The state of graduate student employee unions” (Economic Policy Institute)

Lewis Lapham, “The Enchanted Loom” (Lapham’s Quarterly)



A Strategy for Ruination: An Interview with China Miéville” (Boston Review)

Gavin Francis, “The Untreatable” (LRB)

James A. Marcum, “The Revolutionary Ideas of Thomas Kuhn” (TLS)

George Prochnik, “The Hasidic Question” (LARB)

Zac Bronson, “Thinking Weirdly with China Miéville” (LARB)



Neil Davidson, “History from Below,” (Jacobin)

Colin Kidd, “You Know Who You Are,” (LRB)

Angela Naimou, “Preface,” (Humanity)

Neil Roberts, “Black Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Race: Paul C. Taylor,” (Black Perspectives)



Billy-Ray Belcourt, “Settler Structures of Bad Feeling” (Canadian Art)

Max Read, “The Awl and The Hairpin’s Best Stories, Remembered By Their Writers” (New York Magazine) (including “Negroni Season”, “Text Messages from a Ghost” and “When Alan Met Ayn: Atlas Shrugged and Our Tanked Economy”  

Doreen St. Félix, “Trump’s Fixation on Haiti, and the Abiding Fear of Black Self-Determination” (The New Yorker)



From where I sit, I can watch the lights on the FDR, curving ribbons of white and red, flowing slow as molasses. I can also watch the planes take off from LaGuardia, small blips of light tracing diagonals against the night sky. The FDR is, according to Wikipedia, a “9.44-mile (15.19 km) freeway-standard parkway on the east side of the New York City borough of Manhattan.” Besides cute 3-letter acronyms, the FDR and LGA have something else in common–Robert Moses. It was Moses who provided the original designs for the FDR (in 1934), and it was also Moses who determined that there would be no train or subway service to LGA airport.

In his obituary of Moses, Paul Goldberger wrote, “His guiding hand made New York, known as a city of mass transit, also the nation’s first city for the automobile age. […] The Moses vision of New York was less one of neighborhoods and brownstones than one of soaring towers, open parks, highways and beaches – not the sidewalks of New York but the American dream of the open road. “ And that is why, if you’ve travelled to Manhattan via LGA, your experience of entering (or exiting) the city usually involves considerable time on the FDR.

Of course, we know where this story goes, and most of us are familiar with the Jane Jacobs critique. (And perhaps also with the critiques of the Jane Jacobs critique… Though, as Adam Gopnik noted, it is hard to criticize her.)

In the same essay, Gopnik observes: “London, Paris, New York, and Rome—whose political organizations and histories are radically unlike, and which live under regimes with decidedly different attitudes toward the state and toward enterprise—have followed an eerily similar arc during the past twenty-five years. After decades in which cities decline, the arrow turns around. The moneyed classes drive the middle classes from their neighborhoods, and then the middle classes, or their children, drive the working classes from theirs.”

New York was a different city in the midst of that decline. It created the conditions for the production of entirely new types of art–among them, the abandoned buildings that Gordon Matta-Clark carved into “urban equivalent[s] of Land Art.” Matta-Clark is now the subject of a retrospective at the Bronx Museum, a fact that underscores Gopnik’s point about the rising arc. In the 1970s, when New York was deep in its decline, Matta-Clark began thinking about using the city’s derelict buildings as a medium for his art. His first act of “anarchitecture” was to cut holes into the walls and floors of abandoned Bronx apartments. A short film, “Day’s End,” documents the artist creating a “sun and water temple” out of an abandoned pier near Gansevoort Street.

A line of descent runs from Matta-Clark to Rachel Whiteread, whose cast-concrete “House” (1993, destroyed 1994) was also a comment on the conditions of the city–though the city, in this case, was London, and the “conditions” in question were those that Gopnik might ascribe to the upward arc, the arrow turning around. Or we might call it gentrification. “House” was a cast of a specific London house, one located at 193 Grove Road, in an part of the East End called Wennington Green. A piece by Digby Warde-Aldam, published on the tenth anniversary of “House,” ruefully noted: “To say the early 1990s were a time of upheaval for the then-predominantly working class neighbourhoods of the East End doesn’t come close; the Conservative government had put an enormous amount of faith into constructing a new financial centre around Canary Wharf, a few miles south of Wennington Green. In the surrounding areas, ‘regeneration’ became a mantra. The terraces around the Green, heavily bombed during the Second World War, were among the first places marked for demolition: ‘Thatcher wanted to create a “green corridor” around Canary Wharf’, Rachel Whiteread says, ‘I had my studio nearby and used to cycle past. I was very conscious of the fact it was all about to change’.”

Whiteread, too, is getting a major retrospective. Her work can be undeniably beautiful, as the Tate’s installation of Untitled (One Hundred Spaces, 1995) demonstrates. One hundred cast resin volumes, each delineating the volume of space beneath a specific chair, carefully arrayed in a austere, neoclassical space. They look, to me, like so many pieces of pate de fruit, laid out against a backdrop of clean, neutral stone. Eleanor Birne described their effect beautifully: “At the Tate, when the sun comes out over the long glass roof of the gallery, the coloured blocks glow like boiled sweets, or like jewels. When the sun goes in they grow duller, mute. I visited on a bright sunny-cloudy day and they lit up and grew dim over and over again.”

If Matta-Clark was born of the city’s decline, Whiteread is undoubtedly a product of the upward arc. No deconstruction here. In the new city, the city awash in wealth, we create cast relics, we ‘mummify the air.’ We relish the thingness of things, their taste, their touch. One could eat Whiteread’s Due Porte (2016), with their hard candy sheen, ingesting both their beauty and the history imprinted in that translucent blue resin. The city changes, yes, but we can hold onto history here. We can almost taste it in our mouths.


Life and Likeness at the Portland Museum of Art

By Editor Derek O’Leary, in conversation with curator Diana Greenwold

It can be easy to imagine the early American republic as rushing headlong into the future during its first half-century—westward with the suppression of Indian society, seaborne to new markets with the products of southern plantations and western farms, upward in the growth of manufacturing hubs and cities, and in all cases away from the colonial past.  Newspaperman and staple of any US history survey, John O’Sullivan celebrated in this “Great Nation of Futurity” “our disconnected position as regards any other nation; that we have, in reality, but little connection with the past history of any of them, and still less with all antiquity, its glories, or its crimes.”

This forward orientation was a common enough sentiment during these decades, yet one bound up in a much broader and Janus-faced preoccupation with the nation’s place in time. Biography burgeoned as a literary form (finely explored in Scott Casper’s Constructing American Lives, 1999); leading authors leveraged historical fiction to fashion a mythic colonial and revolutionary past; historical, antiquarian, and genealogical societies flourished as civic institutions. And in innumerable households, individuals and families marked their passage through time during years of seemingly unprecedented change.

The Portland Museum of Art’s exhibit “Model Citizens: Art and Identity from 1770-1830” (on view through January 28) provides fascinating insight into that latter world. It assembles a diverse array of household and commercial practices of marking pivotal stages of life in the early United States. Drawing on rich collections in Maine and New England art, it places in conversation a range of self-representation, organized around the life cycle: birth and childhood, marriage, adulthood, death and mourning. The exhibition recognizes its bounds within the white household, but in this space explores a far greater variety of lives and likenesses than we would typically see from this period.


Gilbert Stuart (United States, 1755-1828), Major General Henry Dearborn (1751-1829), 1812, oil on panel, Gift of Mary Gray Ray in memory of Mrs. Winthrop G. Ray, 1917.23

Diana Greenwold, PhD., who curated the exhibition, situated “stalwarts of the permanent collections”—such as the large and familiar oil portraits by Gilbert Stuart— alongside less elite likenesses produced in households and more accessible markets, such as samplers, shadow cutters, paintings by itinerant artists, and mourning embroidery (shown below).  “For a long time,” she explains, “that type of folk portraiture was understood as being less sophisticated and telling of the moment,” a bias which the exhibition helps to revise. “By using different media,” she continues, “you open up the opportunity to show how different social classes can get at a similar goal. Not everyone can engage Gilbert Stuart, but cut paper can serve in a similar way for families to represent themselves, to both themselves and those around them.”

In depicting the shared life cycle of individuals of such disparate means, the exhibition thoughtfully examines the uses of these varied self-representations. Sewn samplers produced by middle- and upper-class girls in finishing schools served as stages to perform discipline, literacy, numeracy, and piety. But alongside sewn renditions of the alphabet, numbers, and biblical verses, girls might also inscribe their own name and age, or indeed, as in this peculiar rendition of a genealogy, a truncated, textual family tree.

Mary Ann McLellan_Genealogy Sampler

Mary Ann McLellan (United States, 1803-1831), Stephen McLellan Genealogy Sampler, circa 1816, cotton on linen, museum purchase, 1981.1063

By the 1830s, genealogy would develop into a widespread household and academic practice, equipped with institutions, periodicals, and specialists who manipulated transatlantic connecting networks. (Francois Weil’s Family Trees (2013) is the recent major work on this phenomenon in the US.) Often, it sought to link the living in an unbroken chain backward, at least to the first Anglo-American settlements, and ideally eastward to their English origins.  Yet, in a decade when genealogy had yet to emerge as a widespread practice, Mary Ann McLellan’s genealogical sampler (above) is striking: it places her father atop a small familial hierarchy, above his first and second wife and their four children. Paternity is overt; maternity only deducible by examining dates of birth and death. In this riff on a genealogical tree, more important than connecting the present to the past is inscribing an inter-generational duty: overseen by an elder generation, undertaken through a younger, promised to a future. “Let us live so in youth that we blush not in age”, the poem insists. The admonishment is surely a basic feature of gendered household management, but one cannot help but hear echoes of the broader national anxiety about the character and prospect of the country during these years, when the trope of the cyclical rise, corruption, and fall of republics was most potent.

Expanding on this analogy, Greenwold explains that “these domestically-scaled ways of representing self or family could become proxies for larger questions of national identity.” Especially in the works of childhood (produced both of and by children), “for a person in the early US, memorializing their children as the first generation of native-born citizens could be an act of establishment, visualized in a permanent and lasting way around virtues that were stressed for a new republic: industry, piety, family, etc. This notion of a domestically-scaled object had bearing not just on how folks were understanding their own families, but within a larger-scale participation in a budding national family.”

Though many of these were household products intended for a domestic space, perusing the exhibition, one can also imagine the markets for likenesses springing up in these decades before the more mechanized means of the daguerreotype and its successors. The shadow-cutters are the cheapest, visually starkest, and perhaps most arresting of works on display. Greenwold notes that these profiles cut into beige paper and pasted on black background (and sometimes vice versa) were produced at once by itinerant artists, as a popular parlor game, or in such venues as Charles Willson Peale’s Museum by means of a physiognotrace. The exhibition explains the special appeal of the profile—which features the chin, nose, and forehead—in the field of physiognomy, which sought to discern character in the subject’s facial features. In these shadow cutters of the women of the Stone family, distinctive hair styles have been inked around the silhouettes. Historian Sarah Gold McBride, whose work examines the significance and uses of hair in the nineteenth century, argues that in addition to physiognomy, hair style, texture, style, and color conveyed clues to one’s character in this period. (See her dissertation “Whiskerology: Hair and the legible body in nineteenth-century America” (2017) for more on this.)


Unidentified artist (United States, 19th century), Cut paper silhouettes of the Stone Family, 1917.11-.18

These were often products of fleeting popular or commercial transactions. However, in addition to revelations of character, as small and easily transferable objects these likenesses-and more specifically portrait miniatures painted in watercolor on ivory-could be more intimate than the finely painted portraits of Stuart or John Singleton Copley. Greenwold elaborates, that “they are meant to be very portable and physically held, near the heart or the body. That sort of physical embodiment of a loved one does something categorically different than something that hangs in a parlor, such as an oil on canvas portrait, that would be both for family and the larger group of visitors who would be in your home.”

If girls mainly executed the works of childhood in this collection, and mostly men those of adulthood, women undertook the tasks of mourning represented here. Though there are cases of men making some of the outlines of such mourning embroidery, Greenwold discusses that “in this nineteenth-century moment, women were becoming the vessels through which a family performs its mourning—the public face through which a family expresses grief, for instance.” Bedecked in Greco-Roman iconography, balanced around a central urn inscribed with the dates of the departed, these “classically-draped figures intertwine with a lexicon of Christianity, forming a hybrid language of pagan and Christian.” It is a common aesthetic aspired to by the middle to affluent classes in this period, but one which suggests again how the marking and performance of the life cycle in the early US was enmeshed with the larger concerns of the place of the American citizen and republic in history.

Memorial to Mrs. Lydia Emery

Susan Merrill (United States, 1791-1868), Memorial to Mrs. Lydia Emery, 1811, watercolor and needlework on silk, Gift of Helen Harrington Boyd in memory of Susan Merrill Adams Boyd, 1968.4

What We’re Reading: Week of January 8.



Reading the Scriptures by Thomas Waterman Wood, 1874.

Here are a few of the pieces the team at the JHI blog have been reading over the last week:


“The World in Time”: Interview with Eric Foner (Lapham’s Quarterly)

Anton Jaeger, “The Myth of Populism” (Jacobin)

Richard Holmes, “Out of Control” (NYRB)

Irvine Loudon, “A brief history of homeopathy” (JRSM)



Branko Milanovic, “What these early-2oth-century scholars got right” (Vox)

Eleanor Robertson, “Intersectional Identity and the Path to Progress” (Meanjin)

Nathan Robinson, “Orders from above” (Current Affairs)

Michelle Wolff, “Symposium: Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life” (syndicate)



Zoë Carpenter, “If We Lose Our Healthcare, We Will Begin to Die” (The Nation)

Moira Donegan, “My Name Is Moira Donegan” (The Cut)

Joan W. Scott, “How The Right Weaponized Free Speech” (The Chronicle of Higher Education)

Anthony Oliveira, “The Year in Apocalypses” (Hazlitt)



Melinda Cooper, “Family Values: Between Neoliberalism and the New Social Conservatism”

Polygon’s Year In Review, especially Charles Yu on Universal Paperclips (play the game, too)

My friend Ilan Moscovitz’s series on AI: (parts one, two, three and four) (The Motley Fool)



Ayelet Wenger, “Hokhmat Nashim” (The Lehrhaus)

Andrew Butterfield, “Divine Lust” (NYRB)

Marcel Theroux, “The post-truth Gospel” (TLS)

Brook Wilensky-Lanford, “Jonas Bendikson: Among the Messiahs” (Guernica)

Michael Valinsky, “To and from the Linguistic Shore of Ismail Kadare’s ‘A Girl in Exile’” (LARB)



Bryan A. Banks and Erica Johnson, “Religion and the French Revolution: A Global Perspective,” (Age of Revolutions)

Julie Green, “Movable Empire,” (Jacobin)

Jennifer Anne Hart, “The Crown Goes to Ghana? Media Representation, Global Politics and African Histories,” (Ghana on the Go)


If you are anything like me, you are probably still writing 2017 when you actually mean 2018. I spent New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day moving, so I had precious little time to make New Year’s resolutions. Still, that didn’t stop me from considering how I might improve myself over the course of these next 52 weeks. Or are there now only 50 left? I guess that gives me 2 less weeks to improve myself to death. Alexandra Schwartz’s piece will have you alternately making — and unmaking — resolutions. Maybe just take her suggestion and just go read a novel. In any case, I should probably refrain from buying either self-improvement manuals or novels for quite some time, as the act of unpacking my library has left me exhausted. If only I could find my copy of Illuminations, I could read Walter Benjamin’s “Unpacking My Library.”

Note that Benjamin never wrote an essay on unpacking his wardrobe. But clothes, like books, are repositories for memories. Fashion’s ability to conjure worlds out of memories is used to great effect in a trio of recent movies–Lady Bird, I, Tonya, and Call Me By Your Name. Lady Bird’s director Greta Gerwig told Sam Levy, the film’s director of photography, that she wanted the movie to “look like a memory.” In an interview with Vanity Fair, Levy, Lady Bird’s costume designer April Napier and production designer Chris Jones discuss how they achieved this aesthetic. (An unexpected source of inspiration: Lise Sarfati’s portraits of young women.) Giulia Persanti had a very different approach to the costume design for Call Me By Your Name. Unlike the pointed specificity of Lady Bird’s costumes, Persanti’s costumes were only loosely anchored in the film’s time period (1980s Italy). In an interview with British Vogue, Persanti said, “My main focus was to make a period film in which the costumes didn’t stand out as too ‘period-y’. More important was to send a clear message of the personality and origins of each character, choosing to give a casual, timeless, intimate style with a hint of inhibited adolescent sexuality.” I, Tonya has a very different relationship with clothing and memory. Jennifer Jones, the costume designer for I, Tonya, wanted to avoid saddling her characters with excessive nostalgia or kitsch. Jones discusses her approach in interviews with Entertainment Weekly and Deadline. Jones also wanted to avoid creating a caricature Tonya. Here, the clothes help open up the audience’s understanding of each character’s psychological development. We knew Tonya–and the people around her–primarily as tabloid and tv fodder. Jones hoped her costumes would restore some measure of their humanity, the humanity denied them when they were mocked, reviled–and played for laughs.






by contributing writer Jonathon Catlin

This post is adapted from the author’s contribution to a panel discussion entitled “The Frankfurt School Knew Trump Was Coming” hosted by the Leo Baeck Institute, New York City on October 25, 2017, featuring co-panelists Jack Jacobs, Liliane Weissberg, and Anson Rabinbach. A video recording of the event can be found here.

Over a year after the election of Donald Trump, countless comparisons have been made between our populist moment and the rise of authoritarianism and fascism in twentieth-century Europe. Placing even greater stress on this tenuous analogy, many of Trump’s critics have turned to analysis of these phenomena by German-Jewish émigré intellectuals, notably Hannah Arendt and members of the Frankfurt School of critical theory. In this flurry of citation, critics have tended to elide deep rifts between these German traditions, even as the theories invoked in fact support two distinct and opposing interpretations. The first of these we might call the anti-tyranny camp (a darling of liberal publications) the faces of which are the historian Timothy Snyder (Yale University) and his theorist of choice, Hannah Arendt. The alternative is what we might call the anti-capitalist camp. It is here we find the Frankfurt School, which brings together an analysis of fascism with anti-capitalist critique. Conflicting temporalities underlie these divergent approaches: anti-tyrannists characterize Trump as a historical rupture, a deviation from history as usual, while for anti-capitalists he is a historical continuity, a product of history as usual. I will make the case that it is the latter tradition, as distinct from an Arendtian fixation on totalitarianism, that best articulates a critical synthesis of historical precedent and contemporary threat.

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The anti-capitalist approach developed here can be summed up in a line: “Whoever is not prepared to talk about capitalism should also remain silent about fascism.” Max Horkheimer, a longtime director of the Frankfurt School, penned this dictum in his controversial essay “The Jews and Europe” from exile in New York in 1939 (an ominous year for a German Jew like himself). Notable among those returning to the Frankfurt School today is the political theorist Corey Robin (Brooklyn College), who recently gave second life to Horkheimer’s dictum in a tweet: “Whoever is not prepared to talk about Bushism should also remain silent about Trumpism.” Another reprise connects climate change and market imperatives for economic growth: “Whoever is not prepared to talk about capitalism should also remain silent about the 6th mass extinction.”

How did it come to be that “if you want to understand the age of Trump, you need to read the Frankfurt School”? As expressed in Horkheimer’s line, the most defining feature of the Frankfurt School’s multidimensional analysis of fascism was their emphasis on historical continuities between fascism and the forms of failing liberal democracy that historically paved the way for it. Instead of seeing fascism as an alien phenomenon that attacked liberal democracy from without, they emphasized elements of fascism that also flourished—both before and after fascism—under liberal democracy.

Alex Ross’s December 2016 New Yorker article “The Frankfurt School Knew Trump Was Coming” emphasized the role of what Theodor Adorno called “The Culture Industry” in Trump’s rise to power. In Ross’s words, our present “combination of economic inequality and pop-cultural frivolity is precisely the scenario Adorno and others had in mind: mass distraction masking élite domination….Like it or not, Trump is as much a pop-culture phenomenon as he is a political one.” This invocation of Adorno is, crucially, two-pronged: it brings together the way mass media and celebrity culture can be used to exploit resentments accompanying the accelerating economic inequality and displacements endemic to what Adorno already in the 1940s called “late capitalism.” (As Anson Rabinbach (Princeton) has quipped, I suppose we are now in “too-late capitalism.”) Without both threads, the twinned critique of culture and capitalism, this analysis fails.

Adorno and Horkheimer realized by the late 1930s that a reductively materialist interpretation of fascism fails to account for why the working class sometimes opts for right-wing demagoguery instead of socialist revolution fitting with their “true” class interest. To explain this, Marxian materialism needs to incorporate theories of mass psychology, the spectacle of modern media, and class-based social manipulation. The Frankfurt School has thus been characterized as “the marriage of Marx and Freud.”

In particular, many today have turned to the notion of the “authoritarian personality” seeking a key to understanding Trump. The term was popularized by Adorno’s co-authored work of empirical social psychology published by that name in 1950. Following an astute reconstruction of published and unpublished versions of this text by Peter E. Gordon (Harvard), I would define this term as a historically-produced character type incapable of genuine experience and hence also incapable of autonomous moral, political, and aesthetic judgment. As Gordon remarks, this work “moved in the dialectical space between sociology and psychoanalysis, guided by the critical ambition that one might develop, without reductionism, a correlation between objective socioeconomic conditions and subjective features of individual personalities.” Hence this type should be seen as a broad sociological heuristic; it does not map onto individuals’ actual political practices or beliefs, but rather describes, in the authors’ words, the “potentially fascistic individual,” the qualities of whom were measured by an “F-scale” (where F stands for fascist) along several dimensions: submissiveness, adherence to social convention, aggression, superstition, a rejection of inwardness, repressed or paranoid sexuality, projection, and anti-intellectualism.

Before the 2016 election, The Authoritarian Personality had quite a bad rap. It had long been cited, rather superficially, as offering an argument about human nature akin to the famous Milgram experiments, which presented authoritarian individuals as mere “cogs in the bureaucratic machine.” Adorno co-authored the work with several psychologists, and many of them tended toward the simplistic conclusion that authoritarian personalities are merely “bad apples”—discrete pathological cases that arise innately or as a result of authoritarian parenting. Adorno notes many problems with these psychological conclusions in his own contribution to the book: first, they assume an unchanging Freudian subject, and second, they distract us from how authoritarian subjects are socially produced by changing historical conditions. In this respect, Adorno offers something like a dissenting opinion in this collective work.

According to Gordon’s structural reading, insofar as Adorno “refused to identify such social pathologies with specific personalities or social groups…the authoritarian personality signifies not merely a type but rather an emergent and generalized feature of modern society as such.” Gordon thus criticizes attempts to diagnose the particular pathologies of Trump or his supporters. “If Adorno was right,” he presses, “then Trumpism cannot be interpreted as an instance of a personality or a psychology; it would have to be recognized as the thoughtlessness of the entire culture.” Hence “Trumpism itself” would be “just another name for the culture industry, where the performance of undoing repression serves as a means for continuing on precisely as before.” Gordon finally rejects the tendency to analogize Trump and fascism, suggesting, per Godwin’s law, “that the Nazism analogy functions less as description than as expression” of “alarm” about a state of affairs ultimately unique to our time.

Following Adorno’s own critique, the task, as I see it, is to historicize the notion of the authoritarian personality—to emphasize how what Adorno called “bad society” in turn produces “bad subjects,” dimming the emancipatory potential of mass politics. Viewing this work in light of the Frankfurt School’s broader social theory, we see that the concept of the “authoritarian personality” links together many spheres of analysis long considered distinct: the critiques of capitalism, culture, nationalism, and antisemitism.

The most sophisticated—if at points impenetrable—product of this synthetic approach is Adorno and Horkheimer’s 1944 work, Dialectic of Enlightenment. According to their critique of “the culture industry,” monopoly capitalism had transformed art, music, and film—produced by ever fewer mega-corporations—into homogenous commodities to be passively consumed—thus enforcing conformity and hampering the possibility of dissent in advance. Once commodified, culture becomes an ideology that upholds the existing capitalist order rather than challenging it. The capitalist imperative for mass consumption produces a society of consumeristic followers rather than citizens; it creates superficial and homogenous individuals incapable of genuine creativity, spontaneity, or autonomy—much less critical thought or resistance. The culture industry produces individuals unable and unwilling to endure the complexity of life in common. It not only exploits but also produces the “intolerance of emotional and cognitive ambiguity” co-author Else Frenkel-Brunswik described in The Authoritarian Personality (p. 464).

The Frankfurt School’s writings on the culture industry anticipated the perils of commodified information that roiled the U.S. around the 2016 election. The circulation of fake news on television and social media sites was far from an accidental aberration in the allegedly “value-free” marketplace of ideas. Rather, the process we witnessed of dumbing-down and making up news is a tendency intrinsic to all cultural and intellectual production submitted to the imperatives of click-counts, ratings for mass audiences, and, ultimately, profit. In 2016, our culture industry systematically favored scandals to policy solutions, preferring to cover simple but false campaign promises to the unsexy but vital work of governance. In Ross’s words: “At some point over the summer, it struck me that the greater part of the media wanted Trump to be elected, consciously or unconsciously. He would be more ‘interesting’ than Hillary Clinton; he would ‘pop.’” Ross invokes Adorno’s 1945 reflection in Minima Moralia on “the conversion of all questions of truth into questions of power”—and, once more, of profit.

The culture industry and the instrumentalization of mass media set the stage for one of the oldest plays in the authoritarian handbook: the cultivation of the heroic and celebrity status of the leader through the modern spectacle. In 1933 as in 2016, the cultural process Adorno and Horkheimer called “mass deception” helped win over what Adorno saw as a society of dejected, resentful, hollowed-out subjects. There was no tyranny at work here: freedom was not stolen by the might of dictators, but willfully offered up to an imagined collective represented by a strongman promising national redemption.

Adorno argued in a 1951 essay on the Freudian mass psychology of fascist propaganda that the “bond” of the collective is what enables the “fascist demagogue…to win the support of millions of people for aims largely incompatible with their own rational self-interest” (p. 135). There are echoes here of Trump’s claim in January, 2016, that he “has the most loyal people” behind him and “could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot someone and…wouldn’t lose any voters.” Yet Adorno dialectically interrelates this mass psychology of conformity with structural social critique: “The deeper we go into the psychological genesis of the totalitarian character, the less we are content to explain it in an exclusively psychological way, and the more we realize that its psychological stiffness is a means of adaptation to a mutilated society.”

The crucial hinge in Ross’s claim that “The Frankfurt School Knew Trump Was Coming” is that the theorists were not only thinking of Nazi Germany when they investigated the fascist potential of modern society. The empirical data for The Authoritarian Personality was gathered in the U.S., which during the 1930s and 1940s produced its own share of nationalist populism—albeit with less drastic consequences. The principal failing of the anti-tyrannists is their lack of self-criticality about such problems in American democracy that long predated Trump. A key element that held on both sides of the Atlantic was the way authoritarian subjects defined themselves through a negative relation to out-groups such as Jews, foreigners, and communists. As Adorno put it, authoritarian subjects “fall, as it were, negatively in love” with the out-group enemies they projectively construct. He crystallized this position: “I/We are categorically and absolutely not Them.” What Adorno called “negative integration” thus generates an in-group without necessary affirmative content. Mass media and propaganda techniques helped modernize and radicalize the long tradition of basing “real” American identity on the exclusion of racial others.

An equally important analysis of authoritarian populism in America comes from Leo Löwenthal, a lesser-known sociologist affiliated with the Frankfurt School since its founding. In the days before Trump’s election, the intellectual historian Richard Wolin (CUNY) invoked the relevance of Löwenthal’s 1949 co-authored book Prophets of Deceit to the Trump phenomenon. It offers a psychological ethnography of populist radio agitators like Father Charles Coughlin who mobilized millions across America through xenophobia, Judeophobia, and paranoia about imminent communist plots against America. Speeches by populist agitators they analyzed sharply recall the rhetoric of the 2016 election: “We are coming to the crossroads where we must decide whether we are going to preserve law and order and decency or whether we are going to be sold down the river to these Red traitors who are undermining America” (p. 5).

As long as figures on the right continue to invoke fascistic rhetoric—from Trump’s “America First” to the alt-right’s “blood and soil”—it seems the fascist analogy is not going away anytime soon. As Martin Jay (Berkeley) once quipped, the concepts of our Zeitgeist are like the furniture in the room: we intellectual historians can only do our best to rearrange them. For now, the fascist analogy is ours to sit with and work through. Yet it remains to be seen how to counteract such agitation. Löwenthal and Adorno emphasize the rally as a participatory spectacle able to mobilize mass audiences through in-group identification. A key question today is whether Trump can sustain the power his “movement” accrued through his signature rallies, for since he stepped off the campaign trail his popularity outside his in-group has plummeted.

The Frankfurt School’s analysis of the authoritarian personality may prove more helpful in explaining the rise of Trump through media and mass politics than telling us what to do next. Blindsided by the shock of fascism and its crimes against the Jews, the first generation critical theorists came to believe that revolution was no longer possible in a “totally administered society”—one in which critique itself would not be possible. Writing from exile in the 1940s, Adorno reflected on this dark horizon in his Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life. His antipathy toward positive revolutionary social and economic programs is clear in the 1945 aphorism Mélange, in which he critiques liberal platitudes about the ideals of racial “tolerance” and “equality,” for he had witnessed in his own lifetime—from the Stalinist Left as well as the fascist Right—that “abstract Utopia is all too compatible with the most insidious tendencies of society.” Rather, he wrote that “an emancipated society…would not be a unitary state, but the realization of universality in the reconciliation of differences.” A politics that took this seriously, he argued, should not advocate even the idea of the abstract equality of human beings, but rather use critique to point out “the bad equality of today”—that we are, as it were, all equal under the cultural industry—“and conceive the better state as one in which people could be different without fear.” The challenge today would be to take up the critical concepts and emancipatory intellectual practices the Frankfurt School offered and to seek out points of social and political transformation in a society no doubt perversely administered, but far from totally administered.

Jonathon Catlin is a Ph.D. student in the Department of History at Princeton University. His work focuses on intellectual responses to catastrophe, especially in German-Jewish thought and the Frankfurt School of critical theory.






Nazi Punching, or, Simone Weil on Resistance and the Organized Left

by contributing writer Agatha A. Slupek

Simone Weil (1909-1943) occupies a liminal position in the history of ideas. While Weil’s thought is an established concern for scholars of religion and mysticism, she is neglected in the Anglophone study of the history of political thought. Weil’s ambivalent categorization within the history of ideas reflects the trajectory of her life: beginning at the École Normale Supérieure, a common start for French intellectuals, but straying quickly from academics to long bouts of militancy. Her uncommon path and melancholic spirit might suggest that to treat her as simply one among others in the history of ideas would be to do her legacy a disservice. Let us not allow saintliness to prevent us from careful reading.


Simone Weil in Marseilles, circa 1940

In this essay, I argue for the relevance of Weil’s thought to our present political conjuncture: one in which concerns about the ethics of resistance and questions of free speech saturate the public sphere. Weil helps us think through the relationship between individual liberty and collective oppression, as well as how to constitute political groups that don’t reproduce oppressive dynamics. The contradictory space between – not the individual and society, as liberalism would have it – but the individual and the self-constituted collective – was for Weil the site of the political. There is no doing away with this contradiction for Weil. The space of the political remains a contingent and tenuous field that we must always configure anew. Reflecting on Weil in 2017 promises to illuminate key ethical and political problems we face in the context of the rise of neo-fascisms and at the centenary of the Russian Revolution. While at times Weil unjustifiably conflated fascism and communism, her corpus is germane to thinking the contemporary political moment.


Simone Weil and the Organized Left

For those on the left re-visiting the revolutionary legacy of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution on its centenary, a renewed interest in Weil may seem reactionary or irrelevant. Given the changing and storied relationship between French intellectuals and the organized left, committed Marxists can be quick to dismiss her as a member of the so-called ‘anti-totalitarian left’. Weil was never a member of the French Communist Party (PCF), having published perhaps the most scathing critique of the party form. However, she was active on the left, writing pseudonymously in militant journals and gazettes aimed at a workers’ audience. Initially, it was her experience of hard factory labor in 1934-35 that brought her to see the PCF and the CGT as incapable of relieving workers from what she saw as the source of their misery and destitution – a moral degradation caused by the oppressive rhythms of piece-work. Weil’s experiential study of the condition of the French working class led her to assert the primacy of experience in determining both the means and ends of action.

In keeping with what has been called the Machiavellian moment in French philosophy at this time, Weil places emphasis not on the ends of political action, but on the importance of means to attaining desired ends. In contrast to what she saw as the instrumentalist and economistic visions of the PCF and the CGT, the joyous and spontaneous stoppages of work in factories revealed for her the incapacity of either to understand the “eternal demand” of the working class – that one day men be valued more than things (Grèves et Joie Pure [GJP], 74). On this point, Weil praises Marx, noting that the best pages of Capital are in Chapter 10 (E, 73). These pages bring to light the incompatibility of the industrial mode of production with human liberty and satisfaction for the soul (Réflexions sur les causes de la liberté et de l’Oppression sociale [LO], 15-22). For Weil, workers’ experience is what ought to inform political ends and means: she has no doubt that people will organize to combat oppressive and intolerable social conditions. This sense of necessity, she argues, comes from a deep-seated sense of obligation humans have toward one another, founded on the needs of the human body and soul (E, 9-18). But the manner in which they come together is of paramount importance to her philosophy: Weil has a different problem than did other philosophers, more concerned with the anti-totalitarian label, of the 1970s and 80s.


Simone Weil in Spain

For Weil, the 1935-36 wave of steelworkers’ strikes in France was more than the vindication of such and such an economic demand, but above all a pure joy (GJP, 37). The means workers employed to their collective self-constitution – occupying the factories, singing and laughing in the presence of inoperative machinery that heretofore had forced them into submission day after day – were conducive to their ends of liberation from oppression. Weil’s acute sense of the contingency of means carries through to her posthumously published L’Enracinement [E](1949). In this later work, Weil reflects further on the needs of the human soul and how these inform the thorny questions occupying contemporary public debates about resistance and free speech. This may have put her out of step with the French left of her time, but increases her interest in our own.

Free Speech and Resistance, or, Should You Punch a Nazi?

Weil’s libertarian influence, wariness of collectivities, and “bias against the first person plural” has lead earlier commentators to view her thought as profoundly anti-political (e.g., O’Brien 1977). Weil derives all human obligations from the basic needs of the soul, yet to freedom of speech she devotes more discussion than to any other of the fourteen she enumerates, suggesting a profound concern with the collective aspects of human existence (E, 35-48) Weil writes that intelligence is vanquished when thoughts are preceded, implicitly or explicitly, with that little word nous (E, 41). Important, however, is that in French there is a distinction between nous (first person plural) and on (impersonal plural). While Weil is of the view that thought is hampered if preceded by the ‘we’, as we have seen, she is by no means allergic to the impersonal plural in the sphere of collective action. The political lies exactly in this tension, between the self-asserted nous and the individual human soul, that is always already in contact with the impersonal on. Means are never neutral, however: to use the ‘we’ in this sphere also entails that one’s freedom of speech is not unlimited. Weil in fact denies that collectivities such as journals or political parties have an unreserved freedom of speech, suggesting instead that collectives considered as such do not have rights (E, 10). In Weil as in Hannah Arendt, anti-totalitarian thought reveals to us the complex and tenuous relationship between ethics and politics.

Anti-totalitarian thought has been cast as reactionary, namely, as prompting a retreat into moralism and away from politics conceived of action within relations of force. The work and life of Simone Weil, who remained a committed militant throughout her life, defies such easy denunciation. Though fascinated with Christianity (though not herself a Christian in any formal sense), Weil is by no means a uniformly pacifist thinker. Her militancy in pacifist and anti-fascist organizations in the early 1930s and polemical remarks on the effects of war on the human soul do not describe her full trajectory. In 1943, Weil describes her affiliation with pacifist groups as a mistake (Oeuvres, 77), and her later writings are very ambivalent not as to whether there be a responsibility to resist collective oppression, but how to go about doing so without reproducing oppressive logics. It is this how that guides her life and words, and I suggest, prompts us to consider her legacy beyond the simplistic lens of a beautiful soul. Looking to Weil’s thought today to understand the relationships of political means to ends constitutes a fruitful terrain for scholarly research and public reflection alike.

In France, Valérie Gérard (ENS) has begun to do so, taking interest in Weil’s influence by the Machiavellian currents in inter-war French intellectual circles. Taking this approach to her texts reveals Weil’s critique of abstract universals and emphasis on the concrete in new light. Gérard points to Weil’s favorable remarks on class struggle and her comments on the relationality of political action (L’Iliade ou le poème de la force, Appendice, 159). In the Anglophone world, Antonio Y. Vásquez Arroyo has presented a compelling reading of Weil as advancing a political ethic, that is, “a public ethic that deals with questions of collective life” (104). Her critique of abstractions and collectives lends itself on first glance to a moralistic and ‘merely anti-totalitarian’ reading. However, contemporary evaluations of militant action share her preference for means of resistance – spontaneous, joyful, and conjunctural – that do not reproduce oppressive dynamics, and we have much to learn from her writings on this subject.

So, would she punch a Nazi? That may be the right question to ask our protest buddies, but is a less fruitful approach to Weil. We look to the history of ideas not to find prescriptive rules for action, but to mine it for a richness of insight and feeling that can illuminate our contemporary struggles. We would do well to look to Weil today, not to validate our political agendas, but to find in her work a powerful and nuanced reflection on the nature of oppression, free speech, political association, and resistance.

Agatha A Slupek is a doctoral student in political theory at the University of Chicago. Her research interests are in feminist theory, 20th century continental thought, and democratic theory.

What We’re Reading: Week of 1 January.


The Reader by Eduard Manet, 1861.

Happy New Year! Here are a few pieces that the JHI blog team have been reading over the holiday season.


Adam Hochschild, “Ku Klux Klambakes” (NYRB)

Robin D.G. Kelley, “Coates and West in Jackson” (Boston Review)

Randall Kenney, “The Forgotten Origins of the Constitution on Campus” (American Prospect)


Andrew Lanham, “How to Abolish War,” (New Republic)

Patricia Lockwood, “It Was Gold,” (LRB)

Rachel Shteir, “No Longer Getting Lost at the Strand,” (New Yorker)



Bo Seo, “The Preservation of a Mother Tongue” (TLS)

Christine Jones, “Pods, Pots, and Potions” (Public Domain Review)

Rowan Williams, “The Good Samaritan” (New Statesman)

Shaan Amin, “The Dark Side of the Comics That Redefined Hinduism” (The Atlantic)



B.D. McClay “Reconciliation through Beauty?” (Commonweal)

S.J. Pearce “The Nazi on my Bookshelf.” (Meshalim 2.0)

Susan Sontag “On Classical Pornography (1964, audio)” (92Y Plus)


Nonsense and the Crisis of Democracy in Aristophanes’ Thesmophoriazusae

by Contributing Writer Lucy Valsamidis

Athens was doing badly in the war against Sparta. The fleet had been devastated in Sicily, and morale and cash were running low. When Peisander appeared in the assembly and explained the only way to win was to suspend the democracy for a while – to “have a more moderate form of government” – so they could ask for help from their old enemies the Persians, the Athenians were dubious. They reluctantly agreed to let Peisander try negotiating, but wouldn’t budge on the democracy point. Peisander sailed away – but secretly urged groups sympathetic to oligarchy to undermine the democracy in any way they could. Some time later, the prominent popular politician Androcles was assassinated.

This, according to Thucydides (8.53-54, 65), was what was happening in the spring of 411BC, when (probably) Aristophanes put on his Women at the Thesmophoria at the Dionysia festival (Sommerstein 1977). The play – unlike his Lysistrata, put on just a few months before – hasn’t traditionally been seen as political. It’s even been suggested that Aristophanes was so alarmed by developments that he chose not to put on an overtly political play. Explicit comment on impending oligarchy is certainly limited in the Thesmo. But the Thesmo. is a play preoccupied with political language and its breakdown. What I’d like to argue here is that in tracking the collapse of political language into nonsense and violence Aristophanes just might have been saying something about contemporary politics too.

It’ll be useful to start off with an overview of the plot. The tragedian Euripides discovers that the women of Athens are going to seize the opportunity of a women-only festival, the Thesmophoria, to stage a political assembly and plot to murder him, because he’s given them a bad name by putting characters like Phaedra on stage. Alarmed, Euripides gets an unnamed relative of his to go along in disguise to talk them out of it. When the women discover him, they bring on a Scythian guard to detain him. The rest of the play is taken up with Euripides’ increasingly absurd attempts to rescue the Relative with skits from his own plays. Eventually Euripides succeeds, the women agree not to murder him if he stops misrepresenting them on stage and all ends happily.

A fourth century South Italian Vase

A fourth-century South Italian vase thought to show a scene from the Thesmophoriazusae: the Relative (right) faces off against one of the women. Würzburg, Martin von Wagner Museum.

So far, so meta-theatrical, and plenty of valuable work has been done on the play’s treatment of theatre and gender (see especially Zeitlin 1981). But the men who played the women at the Thesmophoria were like all performers of Athenian drama also members of the democratic assembly, performing before an audience of thousands of (mostly) their fellow citizens. The assembly scene is, in this sense, a parody of Athenian politics. Getting up to speak for the plan to murder Euripides, one of the women claims his lies are outrageous. The rest agree. But when the Relative replies that women really do cheat on their husbands so they can’t complain, the women are equally impressed:

Relative: … Don’t we commit these misdeeds? By Artemis, we do! And then do we get mad at Euripides, though he’s done nothing worse to us than what we’ve done ourselves?

Chorus: This is really astonishing! … I wouldn’t have thought the wicked woman would ever have had the nerve to say these things so brazenly right before our eyes: now I guess anything is possible …

Chorus leader: No, there’s nothing worse in every way than women born shameless – except for the rest of women! (502-32, with omissions)

Thucydides evokes such moments when, in the Mytilenean Debate, he has Cleon criticise the Athenians for being “the easy victims of newfangled arguments [kainotetos logou]” and “slaves to every new paradox” (3.38). It’s significant that we start seeing discussion of clever argumentation of this sort towards the end of the fifth century, around the same time that the philosopher Gorgias floated the idea that it was impossible to convey reality in logos. Suddenly, the implication was, you could argue for anything at all. In fact, Euripides was especially famous for having his characters do this: the Nurse in his Hippolytus, for instance, presents Phaedra with an elaborate justification for adultery (433ff).

Suspicion could attach not only to the content of a political speech but the authenticity of the speaker: Diodotus, Cleon’s opponent in the Mytilenean debate, attacks the Athenians for hesitating to support politicians they agree with for fear they have taken bribes (3.41). Authenticity was apparently felt to be a particularly acute problem in 411. Thucydides tells us that one of the masterminds behind the oligarchical plot was a clever man named Antiphon, who became an object of popular suspicion because he never appeared in the assembly himself but got others to make speeches on his behalf (8.68). So it’s interesting that when the women discover that Euripides’ Relative is not all he seems – not speaking up for himself but Euripides, and not even a woman at all but a man – they quickly abandon their political assembly. Although the women do make political comments later in the play, it’s never as a constituent assembly and never as part of a debate. As the women start seeing through the Relative’s deceptions, then, they also lose their interest in political persuasion.

The women have to make sure that Euripides won’t be able to snatch the Relative from under their noses. So they bring in a guard who is incapable of any sort of persuasion. The Scythian guard is one of the most spectacularly racist caricatures in all fifth century literature. He ties up Euripides’ Relative and threatens him with rape, and is capable of speaking only short sentences of broken Greek (1002ff). The first character Euripides brings on to try to rescue the Relative is Echo, a character from his recent (though now lost) Andromeda. Echo doesn’t bother trying to persuade the Scythian that the Relative is really Andromeda chained to the rocks and in need of rescuing. Instead, while the Scythian is distracted Echo gets the Relative to play along as Andromeda in a duet, parroting the end of each of his lines. The Relative loses his patience, but that just makes her echoes all the more insistent:

Relative: You’re killing me, old hag, with your jabbering!

Echo: Jabbering! (1074)

When the Scythian notices the noise they’re making, Echo flees, parroting each of his yells back at him (1082ff).

Scythians as they saw themselves

Scythians as they saw themselves: this comb was made around the same time the play was first performed. St Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum.

The failure of the Echo ploy, and then of Euripides’ attempt to appear as Andromeda’s saviour Perseus (1098ff), makes Euripides realise he’ll have to try something new again:

Ah me, what action, what clever logic now?

All wit is lost upon this savage lout.

For work a novel ruse (kaina sopha) upon a clod

and you have worked in vain … (1128-31)

So, for his final trick, Euripides doesn’t bring on any characters from his plays at all. Instead, he disguises himself as a pimp and brings a girl, Elaphion, with him on stage (1160ff). It doesn’t prove difficult to persuade the Scythian to pay to spend some time with the – totally wordless – Elaphion, leaving Euripides alone with the Relative and giving them the chance to escape.

Over the course of the play, then, the elaborate political deceptions of the women’s assembly and theatrical deceptions of Euripides’ characters collapse into nonsense and violence. On one level, all this justifies the exclusion of women and non-Athenians from politics. The women’s attempts to plot against Euripides lead to the corporal punishment without trial of an Athenian by a foreign slave. But if we recall that all the characters in the play were played by male Athenian citizens, a different interpretation is possible too. In his analysis of the violent conflict between proponents of oligarchy and democracy on Corcyra (modern Corfu), Thucydides claimed that “words had to change their ordinary meaning and to take that which was now given them” (3.82). Describing the growing mistrust between the citizens of Corcyra, he claims that

the inferior in intellect were most successful. Apprehensive of their own deficiencies and the cleverness of their antagonists, they feared to be worsted in debate … and so boldly had recourse to action. (3.83)

Thucydides was an Athenian, and his analysis of the Corcyraean civil war prefigures his later, more detailed account of the oligarchic coup in Athens. In this light, it’s tempting to think Aristophanes might have used the play between sophistication and stupidity in the Thesmo. to reflect on the breakdown of political debate in the spring of 411. On this view, the assembly of women lose their faith in politics when they realise that the speakers are inauthentic and that there is no relation between their words and reality. Trusting only the unpersuadable Scythian and abandoning political debate themselves, they watch as Echo and the Scythian break the most essential link between words and meaning – basic comprehensibility – as the Relative is tied up and clever Euripides is reduced to tricking the Scythian with the promise of sex.

All this would have been rather more subtle than Aristophanes’ normal mud-slinging at particular politicians and policies. Even in Thesmo., the Chorus – once it forgets about its own claims to political authority – lampoons a few real politicians by name (785ff): one of these, in fact, would be killed by another in the civil conflict later the same year (Thuc. 8.73.3). But perhaps the political problems of 411 demanded a different approach. By using the women’s assembly at the Thesmophoria to comment on Athenian politics, Aristophanes could draw attention to the dangers both of disingenuous political language and of the breakdown of that political language. Importantly, he could also fairly claim that the play wasn’t about politics at all.

If Aristophanes did mean to reflect on the issues of the day, that doesn’t necessarily tell us where he stood on them. In one sense, the Scythian’s acceptance of Euripides’ promise might have reminded the Athenians of their own collective willingness to be duped by promises, of Persian cash or anything else. On this view, the Scythian’s lust for Elaphion is a nasty twist on the comic trope of the Athenian hero getting the girl at the end of the play, or even a reminder of the trope of the voting public’s greed for handouts. On the other hand, the dangerously stupid Scythian might just as well have reminded some of the oligarchic assassins: after all, Thucydides doesn’t specify in his analysis of the Corcyrean crisis whether the oligarchs or the democrats were more likely to be “inferior in intellect”, and by his account the oligarchs were the ones who resorted to violence in 411. Interpretations of this sort along several different lines are possible. Perhaps, then, rather than pushing a partisan line Aristophanes wanted Athenians of democratic and oligarchic persuasions alike to use the Thesmo to think about their approaches to public discourse – and, as a poet who lived off that discourse, to draw attention to its value. Put differently, by projecting the political failings of the men of Athens onto the women at the Thesmophoria and the Scythian, he could invite his audience to turn their derision for each other onto the disenfranchised.

Theatre of Dionysus

The Theatre of Dionysus in Athens.

The year 411 wasn’t the end of democracy in Athens. In June – in an atmosphere, Thucydides suggests, of profound mistrust (8.66) – the assembly voted to install an oligarchical government of Four Hundred, but it proved short-lived. The opponents of the Four Hundred stockpiled arms and gathered in the theatre at Piraeus before going to speak with representatives of the oligarchs (8.93). But the distinctions between political violence and the democratic process were never really clear cut. Two years later, an inscription tells us (Wilson 2009), in the Theatre of Dionysus before the opening of the tragedy competition, a crown was awarded to Thrasybulus of Calydon – a non-citizen – for assassinating the oligarch Phrynichus and, in so doing, defending the democracy from harm.

Lucy Valsamidis studied Classics at the University of Oxford (2013-17), where she was a scholar at Merton College. Translations, sometimes adapted, are taken from Strassler’s edition of Crawley’s Thucydides (1996) and Sommerstein’s Aristophanes Loeb (2000).