The Place of the Ideal in Emancipatory Critique
Committee: Hélène Landemore, Karuna Mantena, Seyla Benhabib (Chair).
Intellectual engagements with activist and marginalized political thought traditionally are framed in terms of increasing particularity; the mode of argument is one of tearing down unjustified appeals to idealizations and universals. This dissertation, on the other hand, is a reconstruction of the ways that the ideal is a vital element in the practice and conceptual underpinnings of activist political thought. I argue that deployments of the ideal are a necessary part of political practice and that an overly restrictive focus on non-ideal theory risks destroying opportunities for political possibility. Using resources from feminist, queer, indigenous, and Black political thought, I argue for the political importance of idealizations of concepts of truth, hope, and the past. I put forth an iterative view of idealization, where the connection to the antecedent concept is both important and explicitly exceeded by the agential use of the concept in the current moment. This argument foregrounds agency, both as a part of political activity and as the necessary element in understanding the deployment of concepts for political purposes.
Ch 1: “Black Jeremiad, White Supremacy, and the Constitution: The Methodological Compatibility of Ideal and Non-Ideal Theory”
This chapter uses Black redeployments of the Constitution as a way to argue for the methodological compatibility of Ideal and Non-Ideal Theory. Through a close analysis of Frederick Douglass’s change of heart from viewing the Constitution as a constitutively pro-slavery document to using it as a resource for emancipatory politics, I argue that redeployments of known oppressive institutions is not an act of naivety, but a reclaiming of political possibility. I further explore these themes in the deployment of Constitutionalism in the Black Panther Party’s evocation of a new Constitutional Convention.
Ch 2: “Idealization as Iteration: Making an Argument against History”
This chapter argues for an iterative view of idealization as opposed to an expansionary view. Traditional American civil religion views the expansion of rights as the correct application of existing ideology to new contexts. Instead, I argue for a view that acknowledges the willful act of manipulation at history that is at play in such redeployments of concepts. By focusing on the arguments for gay marriage in the late 20th century, I argue that an iterative view of idealization allows for both the creation of new political possibilities without foreclosing meaningful critique.
Ch 3: “Outsider Critique and Public Reason: The Necessity of Truth over Reasonability.”
This chapter argues for the necessity of appeals to idealized truth as a grounds for outsider critique. Using Rawls’s attempt to include political actors such as the Abolitionists and Martin Luther King Jr as consistent with public reason as a jumping off point, I argue that there is a non-accidental incompatibility with outsider critique and consensus-based constraints on democratic deliberation. I use the examples of religious appeals in Black and indigenous activist thought and consciousness-raising in 20th century feminist thought to argue that claims premised on truth outside of social reasonability are a necessary part of critique from the margins. The ability to ground one’s claims on something outside already acceptable social life is a necessary aspect of radical change.
Ch 4: “Deliberative Democracy in Activist Practice: The Ideal of Safe Space and the Publicity of the Critic”
This chapter explores the importance of identity positions in the process of critique through an evaluation of the position of the critic as well as the norms that are used to create “safe” deliberative spaces. In the case of safe spaces, I argue that these are created with an idealized homogenous view aimed at controlling the range of predicted deliberative outcomes. This is an essential part of preparing for political practice but cannot be the whole of political conceptualization. In order to make the point about public critique, I explore the role of the identity of the critic and how the publicity of critique comes with an inevitable danger of essentialism.
Ch 5: “Hope for the Future as an Ideal and the Impossibility of Pessimism.”
This chapter engages with the contemporary intellectual traditions of ontological pessimism, including Afro-pessimism and queer pessimism. I argue, using James Baldwin and Orlando Patterson, that there is a structural imperative of ontological optimism in political practice. This chapter dislodges the continuity of political hope and political prediction, allowing for both thoroughgoing critiques of concepts such as white supremacy with the necessity of faith in the possibility of recognition. Following Baldwin, I argue that instead of retreating to ontological pessimism, we must view every instance of marginalization as its own unique and culpable failure and not allow structural critique to overshadow the ever-present possibility that interactions could have been otherwise.
Image from the zine “I heart Amy Carter,” volume #2. Photo by Rebecca Traber.