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Per Caritatem

Non intratur in veritatem nisi per caritatem. St. Augustine

An Encounter with Simone Weil: A Film by Julia Haslett

By Cynthia R. Nielsen

March 6, 2014

An Encounter with Simone WeilRecently I was gifted with a director’s cut DVD of Julia Haslett’s new film, An Encounter with Simone Weil. Weil was a philosopher, labor activist, teacher, factory worker, journalist, and mystic known for her profound reflections on and attention to human suffering.

Below is a brief synopsis of the film as found on the film’s official website. You can view the trailer here and find out how to support this worthwhile project.

An Encounter with Simone Weil had its World Premiere in competition at IDFA (International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam) in November 2010. Since then, it has played at numerous film festivals around the world including Full Frame, DokuFest Kosovo, San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, and Traverse City Film Festival, where Michael Moore awarded it his Special Founder’s Prize. For a complete list of screenings click here. An Encounter with Simone Weil was made possible by the generous support of the Vital Projects Fund, the Florence Gould Foundation, {wholespace.collective}, and IFP, among others.

The film tells the story of French philosopher, activist, and mystic, Simone Weil (1909-1943)—a woman Albert Camus described as “the only great spirit of our time.” On her quest to understand Simone Weil, filmmaker Julia Haslett confronts profound questions of moral responsibility both within her own family and the larger world. From the battlefields of the Spanish Civil War to anti-war protests in Washington DC, from intimate exchanges between the filmmaker and her older brother who struggles with depression to captivating interviews with people who knew Simone Weil, the film takes us on an unforgettable journey into the heart of what it means to be a compassionate human being.

The film’s dramatic story is revealed through contemporary footage in France of places Weil lived and worked, exclusive interviews with key people in Weil’s life and legacy, and vérité footage of the filmmaker’s family in the United States. Intercut with this material is 1930s archival footage, previously unseen photos of Weil, and excerpts of her writings. Weil asked us this question: How do we respond to human suffering? The filmmaker, in turn, wants to know: How do we remain engaged without ultimately destroying ourselves as Weil did when she died from self-starvation at age 34? Still not satisfied with the answers she’s getting, the filmmaker experiments with finding an actress to quite literally conjure Weil up. Drawing on current news and observational footage, Haslett’s narration draws provocative comparisons between Weil’s insight and the world today. The result is a deeply moving film that not only challenges us to think and to feel, but encourages us to initiate important political, psychological, and interfaith dialogue.

Foucault and Rethinking Episteme Change via Musical Metaphors in ROTPP Vol. 2.1

By Cynthia R. Nielsen

February 10, 2014

Musical MetaphorsThe latest issue of Radical Orthodoxy: Theology, Philosophy, Politics (Vol. 2, No. 1) has been published and contains my article, Foucault’s Polyphonic Genealogies and Rethinking Episteme Change via Musical Metaphors. For those interested, here’s the abstract.


In this essay I highlight the complexity of Foucault’s thought through an examination of the diverse philosophical traditions—from Kant, to Nietzsche, to Foucault’s phenomenological lineage via Cavaillès and Canguilhem—that influence his own distinctive project. In addition, I identify key Foucauldian concepts worthy of continued reflection and offer, as my own contribution to the dialogue, various musical analogies as hermeneutical and analytical “tools” that (1) illuminate and clarify Foucault’s ideas and (2) provide a coherent way to understand episteme change.

“Hearing the Other’s Voice” in Otherness, Essays and Studies 4.1

By Cynthia R. Nielsen

January 11, 2014

For those interested, a revised version of my formerly (unpublished) essay on Gadamer has now been published in the open access journal, Otherness, Essays and Studies. You can access my essay for free here. Below is the abstract:

Hearing the Other’s Voice: How Gadamer’s Fusion of Horizons and Open- ended Understanding Respects the Other and Puts Oneself in Question

Cynthia R. Nielsen, Villanova University Ethics ProgramGadamer in Study

Although Gadamer has been criticized, on the one hand, for being a ‘traditionalist’ and on the other, for embracing relativism, I argue that his approach to knowing, being, and being-in-the world offers contemporary theorists a third way, which is both historically attuned and able to address significant social and ethical questions. If my argument holds, then we ought to give Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics a fair hearing, as its import and application can be expanded and employed for contemporary ethical and sociopolitical purposes.1 In section one I discuss key features of Gadamer’s hermeneutics broadly construed, commenting on partial incommensurability, horizon-fusing, and—via dialogue with Charles Taylor’s essay—Gadamer’s notion of dialogical, open-ended understanding. Next, I explain Gadamer’s complex account of experience, comparing and contrasting it with Hegel’s account. In section two I continue my analysis of Gadamer’s understanding of a fusion of horizons and provide several musical analogies to further explicate key aspects of this concept. Throughout my essay I highlight how his philosophical hermeneutics and dialogical model of understanding not only emphasizes but also embraces our finitude and thus our partial claims on knowledge. Given his stress on our ontological and epistemological limitations, his model requires that in our quest to understand the other—whether a live dialogue partner or a text—we must continually put ourselves in question. In other words, Gadamerian dialogue necessitates a willingness and openness to hearing the other’s ‘voice’ in a reharmonized key and to creating a new language together. Lastly, in the final section I present a brief analysis of Gadamer’s interpretation of Plato’s doctrine of the forms.

Douglass’s Political Philosophy of Mutual Responsibility or “Each for All and All for Each”

By Cynthia R. Nielsen

October 17, 2013

Frederick Doulgass Statue (1)As scholars such as Bill Lawson and Nicholas Buccola have observed, Frederick Douglass embraced and advocated for many of the central tenets of “classical liberalism” (e.g. individual rights, freedom, equality, and so forth). However, his liminal experience as a slave compelled him to articulate and develop a more consistent, inclusive, and robust liberalism. As Buccola explains, “In order to close the gap between the promises of liberalism and the realities of American life, Douglass infused his political philosophy with an egalitarian ethos of inclusion and a robust conception of mutual responsibility” (The Political Thought of Frederick Douglass, p. 12). For Douglass, freedom is not understood merely negatively as the ability to act without constraint; true freedom must be construed positively as the freedom to flourish and to develop one’s potential in community with others. Thus, human freedom entails a social dimension; it is expressed and lived concretely in relation with others and requires citizens, legislators, and all who participate in our communal life to live an “I am my brother’s [and sister’s] keeper” ethos.  In short, Douglass argued that as members of a common human family we must embrace our obligation to stand for those suffering injustice and to stand against institutions and practices that promote and maintain social, political, and economic inequalities.

Although Douglass had been scripted as subhuman property, he refused from a very early age to accept white society’s discourses and engaged in creative and strategic acts of resistance. Such acts included transforming mundane (and extremely harsh) workspaces into educational sites for hisown betterment. Well before Foucault foregrounds the knowledge/power complex, Douglass emphasizes the intimate relation between knowledge and power, knowing firsthand how masters maintained their dominating role by denying slaves formal educational opportunities. In other words, Douglass is acutely aware of the fact that the dominating master/slave relation requires knowledge to flow unidirectionally—from master to slave. The slave must be rendered mute and docile; the master must maintain continually the delicate and unsteady balance between creating a completely passive slave subjectivity and a slave with just enough agency to remain useful to the master. Douglass likewise grasped the co-constitutive character of the master/slave relation. That is, he saw that the master’s authority and socially constructed superiority depends in part upon his ability to keep the slave ignorant. Such an arrangement, of course, allows the master’s dominance in the relationship to rigidify on the personal and societal level. For example, since the master has denied the slave educational opportunities, he will de facto possess more knowledge than the slave. This is in no way to affirm any inherent intellectual inferiority on the part of the slave; it is rather to highlight the concrete, “on the ground” situation, given the fact that slaves were denied access to formal education. Likewise, in light of the structural racism prevalent in nineteenth-century America, the master was able to exercise local as well as socio-political and legal disciplinary actions should the slave choose to rebel.

Given Douglass’s context, he had to devise and “perform” improvisational resistance maneuverings in order to advance his education. For example, as a young boy of twelve, he was required to carry out various errands for his master. In order to make the most of his errand-runs, Douglass made sure to carry along two important items: a book and extra bread. Having completed his task with lightening speed, he would approach poor and often hungry white schoolboys playing along the roads and surrounding areas. He would then offer them bread in exchange for incognito “reading lessons”—unbeknownst to them, of course, as they had no clue that they were working to further his educational program. Through such intentional subversive acts, Douglass was able to transform mundane activities and otherwise socially prohibited activities—i.e. whites teaching slaves to read—into classrooms “on the fly” (see also, Nielsen, Foucault, Douglass, Fanon, and Scotus in Dialogue).

Douglass engaged in similar subversive acts of resistance for his writing lessons. For instance, he was acutely aware of the fact that white schoolboys would find it particularly humiliating to be “shown up” by a black slave. Consequently, Douglass put his social astuteness to work and challenged them to write a letter of the alphabet, stating that he could “out-write” them. As he expected, the white lads took the bait, and Douglass’s ability to write improved with every duel.  From the day he overheard Mr. Auld’s commentary on keeping slaves ignorant, Douglass determined to “level the playing field.” Having created improvised classrooms wherever he went, Douglass achieved his goal of literacy over the course of his seven-years with the Auld family.

However, Douglass’s literacy becomes a double-edged sword, piercing his heart with the master’s (Mr. Auld’s) seemingly prophetic words: an educated slave is a discontented slave. On the one hand, Douglass’s ability to read allows him to devour texts such as The Columbian Orator. There he encounters powerful speeches and arguments against slavery. In particular, Douglass singles out a man named, Sheridan, whose speeches he read repeatedly. As Douglass explains, Sheridan’s writings “gave tongue to interesting thoughts of my own soul, which had frequently flashed through my mind, and died away for wont of utterance” (Narrative of the Life, p. 42). Continuing his commentary on Sheridan, Douglass states that his speeches articulated not only “a bold denunciation of slavery,” but also “a powerful vindication of human rights” (ibid.). On the other hand, however, Douglass’s intellectual achievements heightened his sense of lost opportunities—or more accurately, opportunities intentionally blocked, closed off, stolen from him and other slaves, just as his captors had stolen them from their homeland.

In some ways analogous to the “knowledge of good and evil” Adam and Eve gained through their transgressive act of attaining “knowledge” that produced great sorrow—Douglass’s hard-earned intellectual virtues intensified his awareness of his wretched, unjust condition. His inability to return to his former state made him at times envy his uneducated counterparts (ibid.). If only his mind would cease its churning and allow him a reprieve. “It was this everlasting thinking of my condition that tormented me. There was no getting rid of it” (ibid.). Describing in eloquent prose the cruel paradox of (inner mental) freedom amidst (outer socio-political) unfreedom, Douglass writes:

Freedom now appeared, to disappear […] forever. It was heard in every sound, and seen in every thing. It was ever present to torment me with a sense of my wretched condition. I saw nothing without seeing it, I heard nothing without hearing it, and felt nothing without feeling it. It looked from every star, it smiled in every calm, breathed in every wind, and moved in every storm. I often found myself regretting my own existence, and wishing myself dead; and but for the hope of being free, I have no doubt but that I should have killed myself, or done something for which I should have been killed (ibid., p. 43).

In short, Douglass’s literacy, while no doubt providing him a new and invaluable mental freedom, nonetheless, was insufficient for a concrete, embodied human being to flourish in this world. As philosopher Lewis Gordon puts it, Douglass’s initial effects to gain freedom through literacy fail to translate into a full-orbed freedom. These early attempts “create an epistemic rupture, but without a material/historical rupture, there is a gap that must be closed” (“Douglass as an Existentialist,” 218).1

Yet his personal experience of unjust suffering did not result in a spirit of resignation or an acceptance of the status quo; rather, just a few years after his escape from slavery and his resettlement in New Bedford, Douglass not only participated in the abolitionist movement but became one of its leading and most profound voices. His own experience of brutal suffering and the social death he and countless others endured fueled his social activism and compelled him to develop and defend a political philosophy whose central components consist in mutual responsibility and a sense of obligation for the other’s good. Stated otherwise and drawing from an instance of Douglass’s reverse discourse par excellence entitled, “What is the Slave to the Fourth of July,” he writes: “the mournful wail of millions, whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday” are today “rendered more intolerable by […] jubilant shouts”—misplaced, triumphalist shouts proclaiming America’s tainted, blood-stained history as something of the past and that true democracy had finally arrived. For Douglass, the “mournful wails of millions” never grew faint but resounded repeatedly in his soul, piercing him with an existential memory that refused to celebrate half-freedoms, partial rights, and second-class citizenship.

In closing, by embracing a positive, full-orbed view of freedom, Douglass was compelled to insist upon a political philosophy of social interdependence and obligation. For Douglass, genuine freedom cannot turn a blind eye to those suffering injustice; my freedom to flourish as a human being is intimately tied to your freedom for the same. Our belonging to one another and the maintenance of our individual moral character require that we act on behalf of others. Failure to do so injects a pollutant into our shared “moral ecology” (Buccola’s phrase), and this pollutant can in turn poison the social body as a whole. Douglass’s experience as an ex-chattel slave made him acutely aware of the detrimental effects of overexposure to a contaminated moral environment. We today would do well to tune our ears and our hearts to Douglass’s political philosophy of mutual responsibility and, as he so aptly and ardently urges us, to live a philosophy of “each for all and all for each.”

1. Gordon goes on to say, “Douglass recognized at a certain level his situation by learning to read and write. But what is more telling is the crucial moment when he fights for his self-respect in his encounter with the slave-breaker Edward Covey” (ibid.).

The New Thing and Mixin’ it Up: Social, Economic, and Musical “Transgressions”

By Cynthia R. Nielsen

July 31, 2013

Max Roach Freedom Now 1960Free jazz, the New Thing, or the New Black Music as it was variously called exploded on the scene in the latter part of the twentieth century.[1] As is widely known, several prominent musicians such as Max Roach, Abbey Lincoln, and Archie Shepp were influenced by the philosophy and teachings of the Black Power movement, which departed in important ways from earlier civil rights groups. As John D. Baskerville observes, the rallying cry of the black nationalists was not King’s “We Shall Overcome,” but “Black Power.” This new generation of black activists boldly proclaimed black pride and were outspoken advocates for the political and economic empowerment of black people. For example, black nationalists argued that America’s capitalistic (and racist) system “was a colonial system in which the colonized people are the Blacks.” Given this unjust social context, they urged African Americans to “gain control of the economic institutions in their community to build a Black economic power base.”[2] Through establishing black leadership and economic power, African Americans could better determine their futures and resist white exploitative practices.

Jazz musicians attuned to the message of Black Power devised innovative strategies to subvert and transgress white-imposed barriers. Having experienced for some time their own “colonized status” in America’s white-owned music industry, they developed what is often referred to as the “loft movement.” White club owners had little interest or patience with the New Black Music, as it was ill suited for their chief goal, namely, to turn the highest profit possible. For example, a single free jazz composition might last an hour or more depending upon the length of each improvised solo. Such extended forms and prolonged solos allowed the performers to develop and expand their musical ideas “in real time.” However, the club owners preferred shorter, “prepackaged” sets, as they “made their money by requiring a minimum number of drinks per set per customer. The more sets a group played, the more drinks could be sold.”[3] Additionally, quite often the drinks were highly priced, making it difficult for political activists, students, less affluent African Americans, artists, and others interested in the New Thing to support the musicians’ efforts. Not only were the profits funneled to the club owners, but the musicians also had little control over the direction of their art and over the audiences they wished to reach. Consequently, the loft movement was born as a way around the white dominated club scene. In short, musicians opened up their lofts (large apartments) as performance sites and charged their audiences modest fees. Thus, they were able to create a space where artistic expression (rather than profit) was foremost and to establish their own leadership and economic priority. Moreover, since by and large the lofts were located in black communities, the musicians had more say in determining their audience.

My second example of how jazz musicians transgress boundaries is more explicitly musical in nature. Here I focus on John Coltrane’s transformation of the popular Broadway tune, “My Favorite Things.” In order to grasp the cultural and sociopolitical dimensions of Coltrane’s version of the tune, we must consider some of the racialized musical discourses at play at the time. White control of the music industry meant that highly talented black jazz musicians were underpaid and were often denied prestigious performance venues. Moreover, it was frequently the case that black musicians’ talent exceeded their white counterparts, as is displayed by the fact that white musicians openly sought to imitate and internalize African American musicians’ melodic lines, rhythmic phrasings and patterns, and literally memorized improvised solos by jazz greats such as Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, and McCoy Tyner.[4] Given this background, when Coltrane’s version with its sophisticated structural, harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic modifications musically surpassed the original and culturally popular tune, the ramifications went beyond the aesthetic sphere and likewise impacted the sociopolitical realm.

Musically speaking, for example, the multilayered, polyrhythmic “feel” created by the drums, piano, and bass resulted in a complete alteration of the tune’s character. In Coltrane’s version, the construction and placement of rhythmic motifs in the vamp section superimposes a six metric feel rather than emphasizing the tune’s original ¾ time signature. In addition, the vamp section’s six feel contrasts with a different rhythmic pattern in the A section, which both supports the melody and returns the groove to a strong ¾ emphasis.[5] Such rhythmic complexity is completely absent from the original tune whose form and overall rhythmic quality come across as pedestrian. Rather than bind themselves to the original tune’s formal limitations, Coltrane and his group take the composition’s oversimplified and constricting structures as their point of departure and then bend, explode, and re-create them, producing something far more interesting musically than the original. The fact that African American jazz musicians of the Civil Rights Era actively transformed mainstream European-American compositions—not to mention artistically upstaged their white counterparts—carries with it social, political, and cultural significance. Such actions are, as Henry Louis Gates Jr. would say,  ”signifyin(g)” acts.  In brief, Gates’s idea of musical signification is that the music itself has the capacity to “speak” ironically and strategically to social, political, and economic concerns and thus to function as musical expressions of “black double-voicedness” and repetition with a “signal difference.”[6] Lastly and building on Gates’s notion of signifying, Monson highlights how Coltrane’s version of “My Favorite Things” employs European American musical standards for its own strategic aims. In other words, Coltrane’s transformed piece with its extended harmonies and polyrhythmic textures—both of which are musical qualities esteemed by modern and contemporary Western classical composers—not only outshines the original when evaluated by jazz aesthetical standards but also illustrates how jazz musicians can “invoke selectively some of the hegemonic standards of Western classical music in their favor.”[7]

My final example of a musical transgressive act with sociopolitical overtones is found in the freedom of improvised jazz solos—a freedom that promotes both individual expression and that enables one to alter structures. For example, turning again to Coltrane’s version of “My Favorite Things,” the musicians’ extended solos allow for high levels of individual creative expression, yet the solos themselves are both constituted in conversation with the other performances (rhythm section, pianist, etc.) and have the ability to modify the structural parameters of the tune. After all, an improvised jazz solo can continue (at least in theory) as long as the improviser (and the group) desire. Moreover, a solo can take a tune in completely unexpected and “unwritten” directions via melodic superimpositions and rhythmic motifs introduced extemporaneously and taken up by the group as a whole. Not only does the kind of improvisation associated with jazz make each performance of the same tune unique, but it also highlights the capacity of jazz to create a flexible rather than rigidly static and restrictive form. Here we have a musical act of freedom analogous to and expressive of African Americans’ desire for social, political, and economic emancipation from the white-imposed, constraining structures that daily dominated their existence.


[1] See also, Robin D. G. Kelley, “Dig They Freedom: Meditations on History and the Black Avant-Garde.”

[2] Baskerville, “Free Jazz: A Reflection of Black Power Ideology,” p. 487.

[3] Baskerville, “Free Jazz: A Reflection of Black Power Ideology,” p. 488.

[4] I do not mean to suggest that imitation in itself automatically translates into the superiority of the imitated over the imitator. Rather, the idea in this context is that African Americans were the both the key leaders and innovators of jazz and that their musical contributions fundamentally shaped a musical aesthetic that was (and still is) sought by their white counterparts. For a detailed discussion of the “blackening” of American mainstream music and the dominance of African American aesthetics in jazz, see Monson, Freedom Sounds.

[5] Monson, “Doubleness and Jazz Improvisation,” pp. 296–97.

[6] Gates, The Signifying Monkey, p. 51. See also, chapter 2 of the same work.

[7] Monson, Saying Something, p. 120.

Linda Martín Alcoff on Gender as Positionality: An Account of Fluid Identity and Embodied Difference

By Cynthia R. Nielsen

June 25, 2013

Alcoff Visible IdentitiesPhilosopher Linda Martín Alcoff develops an account of subjectivity as positionality as a way to stress how gender acquires its meaning(s) from particular social and historical contexts (Visible Identities, 151). Her attention to gender’s social and historical location motivates her criticism of both cultural feminism and feminist poststructural theory. On the one hand, Alcoff finds the cultural feminist (essentialist, realist) position that emphasizes select “feminine” characteristics (e.g. nurture, intuition, etc.) problematic both for its essentialist tendencies and its failure to explain under what conditions such characteristics come about. In other words, the cultural feminists present a dehistoricized and decontextualized account of alleged “feminine” attributes (151). On the other hand, while eschewing essentialism and embracing nominalism, feminist poststructuralists engage in an “ahistorical approach to resistance” (151).[1] That is, feminist poststructuralists fail to give sufficient attention to the material particularities of our bodies. However, as race theorists have shown phenotypic differences such as skin color do matter when it comes to one’s lived experience.[2] The same is true of gendered bodily differences such as having breasts or the appearance of having breasts. Moreover, feminist poststructuralism’s variant of feminism is limited “to the negative tactics of reaction and deconstruction,”as meanings, definitions, and descriptions of “woman” are variously taken as inherently prescriptive and normative, and thus as oppressive.[3]

Alcoff’s critical remarks are not meant as a complete dismissal of either cultural feminism or poststructural feminism. In fact, Alcoff incorporates what she sees as the best insights of both views into her own account. For example, like the feminist poststructuralists, Alcoff is attentive to the myriad ways that power relations and discourses shape and produce gender (i.e. Foucault’s notion of productive power). However, Alcoff takes issue with a feminist poststructuralist tendency to claim that we are constructed “all the way down.” That is, Alcoff rejects the conclusion that because gender is socially constructed, we must embrace “a total erasure of individual agency within a social discourse or set of institutions, that is, the totalization of history’s imprint” (140). For Alcoff, an individual is able to resist dominant and constraining gender (and racialized) discourses and practices and can re-narrative her subjectivity. An individual agent’s intentional strategies and acts of resistance do not take place “outside” particular social and historical contexts; yet, such actions occur regularly and often result in significant social and political advances as well as new collective identities. (Consider, for example, Frederick Douglass’s acts of resistance against the dominant racist narratives of his day).[4] While collective identities, for Alcoff, are socially constructed, they are nonetheless real and gain their unity through social location, common experiences, and so forth.

Even so Alcoff’s notion of identity is fluid and multiple rather than fixed and homogenous. Here she draws upon the philosophical hermeneutical tradition, utilizing and developing Gadamer’s notion of an agent’s hermeneutical horizon (itself consisting of multiple, mutable perspectives) as an interpretive grid for understanding and being-in-the-world. Thus, one’s horizon may include one’s experience as a Latina, which is different from one’s experience as a lesbian, which is also different from one’s experience as an upper-class or highly educated female in a male-dominated profession. Each of these aspects or multiple identities (of oneself) involves a different set of social practices, discourses, expectations, and recognitions. Some identities within one’s horizon can be more easily compartmentalized than others; however, one’s gender and race, given their visibility and typical identification via select physical markers, must be navigated daily and cannot be relegated to a private (i.e. non-public and non-sociopolitical) realm. Even though one’s horizon and one’s various identities can congeal and become determinate and describable, they are not fixed; instead horizons and identities (political or otherwise) can be altered and expanded via new experiences, gains in understanding, and changes in socio-political structures, discourses, and practices.

Moreover, on Alcoff’s account an interpretative horizon is not analogous to a magnifying glass (100); rather, a horizon constitutes the self and thus is productive or co-creative of one’s world (lived experience). One sees and experiences the world as an Asian woman or as a black man. Here not only does one’s embodied difference matter, but one’s socio-economic location and political standing (i.e. one’s positionality) are also significant, as they impact how an individual is (or is not) recognized socially and legally and what opportunities she can pursue. Alcoff’s emphasis on our embodiment and social location constitutes a needed corrective to certain universalizing tendencies of the hermeneutical tradition. On the point of embodiment, Alcoff finds company with many cultural feminists who also highlight how women’s bodily and gender-coded difference must be recognized (whether we are speaking against the objectification of women in pornography or advocating for maternity leave so that a female’s body may heal). However, as noted earlier, Alcoff’s position does not necessitate an embrace of essentialism, as gender qua social construction is a social (not a natural) reality. To affirm gender as a social reality does not require one to make universal claims about alleged transhistorical feminine characteristics, activities, or roles or about women’s “nature” per se. In addition, on Alcoff’s view (contra tendencies in Butler) our discourse about gender is not in itself oppressive and constraining; it also enables us to describe real issues and concerns affecting women and to create more liberating narratives.

In agreement with Sally Haslanger’s realist position, Alcoff affirms that sexed identity is an objective type, that is, it describes a “unity without an underlying essence”, and the basis for this unity is neither random nor arbitrary (Alcoff 2006: 168). Here a type’s objectivity means that “the unifying factor is independent of us” (Alcoff 2006: 168). Alcoff’s argument for an objective basis for sexed identity does not entail affirming that sexed identity (or gender) is unmediated linguistically, untouched by human practices, or that the narratives about sexed identity are never used to oppress women. Rather, one can (as Alcoff does) embrace gender as a social construction and simultaneously argue that sexed identity is based on objective differences that are not mere products of discourse. For Alcoff, this objective basis is our differential labor divisions in biological reproduction. Specifically, Alcoff formulates her position as follows: “women and men are differentiated by virtue of their different relationship of possibility to biological reproduction, with biological reproduction referring to conceiving, giving birth, and breast-feeding, involving one’s own body” (Alcoff 2006: 172).[5] Here the idea is that certain activities involving one’s body are expected of females only such as the ability (whether actual, potential, or assumed) to give birth to children and to lactate (Alcoff 2006: 172). By articulating her position in terms of possibility or concrete potentiality, Alcoff’s view can account for infertile, prepubescent, and postmenapausal females as well as females who have no desire to bear children. Such is the case because all who fall under the category “women” (including those just mentioned) “will have a different set of practices, expectations, and feelings in regard to reproduction, no matter how actual their relationship to possibility is for it” (Alcoff 2006: 172). Of course, the degree, particular socio-political consequences, and so forth of a female’s reproductive potential will differ from society to society; yet this variation in no way negates the objective embodied aspects that Alcoff specifies.

Lastly, Alcoff argues that her account of sexed identity as an objective type “does not prescribe compulsory heterosexuality in the sense of mandating heterosexual coupling as the necessary means for the reproduction of children” (Alcoff 2006: 173). While conception does require uniting male and female biological material, human reproduction in the broad sense demands significantly more than a mere biological union. Human reproduction involves caring for the child and bringing it to full maturity—a process that can be accomplished by stable, loving adults and is not limited to heterosexual couples only. “Putting biological reproduction as the basis of sexual difference is not the same as putting heterosexuality at the basis or linking heterosexuality with reproduction in the broad sense” (Alcoff 2006: 173). Alcoff mentions several examples of how compulsory heterosexuality can have harmful effects on both the children and the mothers. For example, women who are forced through religious or cultural traditions or socio-economic structures to marry or remain in an unhealthy marriage are often subject to domestic violence and their children are likewise subject to child abuse. In addition, many children have been lovingly cared for and have thrived in single parent households and adoptive (both non-biological heterosexual and same-sex) families. In short, reproduction in this broad sense—from the support a pregnant women needs to the long-term nurture necessary to successfully bring a child into adulthood—is not the exclusive domain of heterosexual couplings. One can recognize an objective type based on a biological division of reproductive roles, reject the claim that such a recognition logically entails sustained heterosexual relationships, and argue for a dialectical relation between “nature” and “culture” where both are amenable to change via human practices (for example, various medical and other technologies).[6]


[1] For the particular cultural feminist and poststructural feminist theorists that Alcoff analyzes, see chapter 5 in Visible Identities.

[2] On how race matters for one’s lived experience, see Cynthia R. Nielsen, “Resistance Through Re-Narration: Fanon on De-constructing Racialized Subjectivities,” African Identities: Journal of Economics, Culture, and Society 9:4 (2011): 363–85. See also, Cynthia R. Nielsen, Foucault, Douglass, Fanon, and Scotus in Dialogue: On Social Construction and Freedom.

[3] On “negative feminism,” see Alcoff, Visible Identities, 141.

[4] On Douglass’s resistance strategies, see Cynthia R. Nielsen, “Resistance is Not Futile: Frederick Douglass on Panoptic Plantations and the Un-Making of Docile Bodies and Enslaved Souls,” Philosophy and Literature 35.2 (2011): 251–68.

[5] Alcoff later expands her notion of reproduction to include raising a child to full maturation. I will discuss this expanded notion shortly.

[6] For more on Alcoff’s fluid, non-absolute account of nature and culture, see Visible Identities, p. 175.