Critical Theory

After a long day I went to sit outside for a bit, and I watched the stars. Reflecting on the moment and on my life as it is now, a sentence came to my head: ‘I am just living my life and enjoying it.’ It was a humble thought, not a triumphant one. And then, this sentence of Derrida, which had vexed me for years ‘to learn to live, finally’ came to my head. I cite from the head now, but it is from his Specters of Marx, which I read for the first time about seven years ago. Upon my first read this book fascinated me, as it gave me so much new insights into the world we are living in right now. Published in its English version in 1994 (French 1993), the book foresightedly analyzes the post-Cold-War world, which was fresh and new back then, but of which we see the essential characteristics unroll more and more today.

All the same, the book contains long passages of which I could hardly makes sense, as Derrida always thinks along and against and through the many texts he read – of which many are unread by me. Even of Marx, whose name is in the title, I only have sketchy knowledge. For that reason, and out of the hope to understand more of the book, I proposed we would read and discuss it in depth in the postgraduate reading group I formed a few months ago. In my language (Dutch) we have a saying: ‘two know more than one’ – so seven would even know more. And they do. After three sessions (and having progressed unto page 33 of the book) I understand more than I did before. I see, among other things, how Heidegger and Marx dialogue in the thought of Derrida (Levinas always somewhere in the background) – or should I say in his writing? In the thought that springs up when reading his writing again.

We spoke also about this mysterious sentence – to learn to live, finally – we circled around it, but I still didn’t understand what these words, that reminded me rather of self-help literature (to learn to live, finally, in 7 steps – or something to that effect), were doing in a serious philosophical text. But now, looking at the stars, as the ancient philosophers must have been doing so much more than present day ones, I suddenly saw it: this sentence was Derrida’s answer and reference to Plato’s Phaedo, where Socrates teaches his pupils, when he is in prison and about to undergo capital punishment for spoiling the minds of the young, that philosophy is all about learning to die. In the mind of Plato learning to die becomes focusing on the eternal (the stars), the unchanging – to overcome the pain and anxieties of this here life. So suddenly I was present at the grand U-turn Derrida makes – we can still look at the stars, but they aren’t unchanging, as little as anything in our world. After pursuing the Platonic gaze for more than two thousand years, attempting to learn to die in vain, we better try to learn to live, finally.

And that was also what I was feeling myself – after more than half a century on this earth I have learnt to see that nothing is unchanging, not even for a moment. Large as well as minute changes surround me and work in me. Just a few weeks ago I returned to a place where I had been last almost forty years ago, and although I could remember ‘me’ being there, no cell in my body is still the same as then. The fragile structures of my body have somehow translated the memory over and over again, untill it is a faint imprint of the first experience. One cannot even say the memory captures the ‘same’ experience. Or that the ‘me’ remembering is the same.

Everything is changing, but this is for Derrida not a trigger to go and look for eternity beyond this life – but, on the contrary, to take up responsibility: to see injustice in front of me, and try to invest myself to try to restore justice (a justice that has never been, in this world, but that attracts and commands us). Here is where Marx comes in – this thinker, he says, who is ‘mad enough’ to speak to a ghost. When we were discussing in our reading group I remembered Marx’ words about how philosophers ‘up till now’ have only understood the world, but that now it is also time to change it.  This incentive Derrida takes very seriously, where he sees Marx as the first thinker who turned philosophy around – from staring at the stars and wanting to escape life, to seeing even the stars as reminders that we are up to our knees in the endless open ended decision moments of this life, and that we should take up our responsibility to do something, even when we remain in the dark, finally, about the rightness or wrongness of our actions.

Do something, however, not arbitrarily – but under the gaze of the ghost that looks at us – the ghost (of Marx, of the dead, of the suffering who are not fully in this world, of those without civil rights, without papers, without birthright in the affluent societies) that horrifyingly shows us injustice every moment, and our involvement in it. Thus our uncertainty about right and wrong does not mean we can be unengaged, or that we can ever, even for a moment, be indifferent. Paradoxally, this ethical awareness, after the Marxian U-turn of philosophy, means that we are on the path to learn to live, finally. To learn to enjoy life – being part of it, not fleeing it, knowing we can do something, at every moment. Or just doing something, under the gaze of the ghost – without even knowing whether we really can.


I want to thank here my brilliant co-readers of Specters of Marx – you know who you are. You would obviously write a very different post about your reading experiences, were any of you to write a blog. This post just addressed one moment of looking at the stars, on one fine evening in August, by one of us, who realized her ‘me’ to be within this ever changing and changeable sphere which I might want to call life.


From ‘Abuse’ to ‘Zimmerman’: these words significantly delineate the index of The Man-Not, the recently published book by Texas based philosopher Dr Tommy J. Curry. I had long awaited Curry’s book, as I wondered about the theoretical frame which was apparently behind all his work, but not fully articulated in his published articles. Being no expert in the fields for which the book will be tagged by a librarian or bookseller: gender studies or critical race theory, it has been my search for relevance in philosophy, for truth over ideology, that made me follow Curry’s work several years ago. In this sense the book definitely fulfilled my expectations – also as to my special curiosity about how he builds his theory – on this I will focus in my reading review below.

This is a book that is very hard to summarize, as it contains so many studies in detail, that first might appear to be an anthology of research done over the years: from race in 19th century ethnology, through black writers’ experience of the effects of the prison-industrial complex, to white women raping black men under slavery, and supporting their lynching in a later period of history. It is a book I couldn’t put down once I got through the introduction (which situates it within present-day discussions of race and gender) – learning new things from each page, appreciating its creative style of writing as well as its conceptual clarity, despite the abundance of disciplinarily diverse works discussed in it.

I was intrigued by where (what looked like) so many case studies would lead me as a reader. Gradually the substructure (if that is the right word) of the book began to shine through. Or should I say: what the book does (as in ‘how to do things with words’). Or: what I, now, perceive of what it has the potential to do, for I am convinced that this is a book that will only gradually unfold many possible understandings/effects among its philosophical readers – and I wish it will get time to do so (as in a time and place where almost everything Curry states can be seen as controversial by so many potential readers, it might well be misunderstood and mischaracterized, as his work already has been earlier).

Anyway, slowly I started to understand that these were not case studies, and the book is no anthology. It is systematical and methodical to the core, forming theory from actual issues in the lives of black men and boys. First I was surprised why Curry would stress that he theorizes, where he opposes himself to essentializing racist theories – the point is: his kind of theory is different from the one we used to learn in university up till now. It is theory, maybe even a new kind of ontology – beyond constructivism, deconstructivism, and so many other critical ‘isms’ we have seen in the past decades. It doesn’t give a separate account, though, on its ‘method’ – a method designating a road to a subject – as it doesn’t approach a subject by means of a theory. Here we have, rather, theory being developed from its subject-matter: from lived experience.

The experience from which this theory/ontology grows is the experience of African American Black men and boys – experience reflecting the effects of ‘Western’ hegemonic attitudes that legitimized the enslavement and systematic abuse of people from the African continent and still sees their descendants as of lesser value than whites. Experience that might also be described as the historical resistance to being erased from humanity and to being (ab)used for the creation of a world that called itself ‘civilization’. As this ‘civilization’ has aimed to dominate the world, and for a long time succeeded in doing so, its localized (African American Black) criticism opens a window to a new universality, which we perhaps might call Black humanity (my words).

Curry consistently defends that philosophy should be based on facts, on data – historical and sociological. This doesn’t bring him to do ’empirically informed philosophy’, but to a complete turning around of what philosophy can do: liberating actual human beings by letting thought work for them instead of against them. Liberating them by blowing away the academic chaff his insistance on reality has exposed as creating so many ideological mirrors used to distort and crush the humanity of (especially) black men. After reading The Man-Not the ethical ideal of ‘humanity’ itself has disclosed itself as a tool of torture.

Along the way you will have to be ready to follow criticisms that relate so many normative ideas to each other – ideas about gender, patriarchy, (homo)sexuality, femininity, masculinity, class, race, emprisonment, morality, violence – to realize that they form the frameworks of a world that “is not a world for Black people at all.” (228) Despite the critical approach of the entire book, it would be misunderstanding it to read it as a negative book, that doesn’t bring anything constructive. On the contrary, I think, the book is one of the most positive possible, as it discards with what actually is negative already: the thought and practice that treats a certain group of human beings as ‘not real MEN’ (my paraphrase).

To conclude this reading review, I will gather here some quotations that struck me. They are not meant to represent the main line of reasoning of the author, but show some of the places which made me learn new things about race, science, history, ethical and political philosophy. It is a caleidoscope meant to give a taste of what there is to learn here, introduced in my own words. And if you want to hear more from the writer himself, you can watch an interview on the themes of the book.

Scholars should take their responsibility: “This America makes corpses of Black males. […] This death, however, is shunned, cast out of the halls of the university, and avoided at all cost by disciplines.” (1)

Philosophers in the past based themselves on scientific insights: “Hegel’s depiction of the Negro was not the rambling of a simple racist posing as a philosopher [but] […] reflected the most authoritative ethnological thinking of the nineteenth century.” (43)

How gender categories worked in old ethnology/anthropology: “Our present-day understandings simply reduce these ethnological distinctions and evolutionary beliefs to “political” beliefs and erroneous racist ideology, where in reality these were scientific doctrines accepted by both Black and white thinkers […] [:] the Black race was savage and did not have genders […] in relation to the white race the Negro was feminine.” (54)

DuBois opposed Bachofen’s idea that matriarchy was an earlier stage of civilization, instead presented it as the core of African ideas of a civilized world: “The Black Man’s Burden was deployed against the divine right of white men and women to rule non-European societies. It was an attack on the sexual order of white supremacy. Black men understood that the order of the white family, presumed to be the structure of civilization itself, was false.” (71)

On the ideological grounds of mass incarceration, exclusion and erasure of black men and boys from society: “Anti-Blackness creates a schema of social terror that substitutes the deviance white males occupy in society, their pathology, as the nature of Black males. […] The black male […] is raced and sexed peculiarly, configured as barbaric and savage, imagined to be a violent animal, not a human being.” (191)

Why ethics, producing distorted images of black males, “[…] relies on the perceptions and caricatures […] that appeal to whites’ self-assuring images of themselves […].” (185)

All of this leads to the conclusion that “Anti-ethics is necessary to demystify the present concept of MAN.” (186)

My first idea was to call this post “From ‘Abuse’ to ‘Zimmerman'” but on reflection I thought this would have created a more fatalistic image of the experience under discussion than Tommy J. Curry actually presents, ignoring the historical and actual resistance to dehumanization that breathes from every one of its pages.



Like last year, in a team of five, we ‘deliver’ a philosophy course for a large group of governance and management students, called ‘philosophy of management and organisation’. Its main subjects – freedom and responsibility in organizations – are reflected upon by reading texts from thinkers such as Arendt, Weber and Berlin, which offer ample opportunity for discussion. The other day we (the team) were discussing a session on Panopticism by Foucault, a chapter from his famous book Discipline and Punish – the Birth of the Prison. This book does provide a historical analysis of how the modern penitentiary system has arisen – in its earliest forms in the eighteenth century, but this seems just a pretext for proposing to search for the anonymous techniques of power that are at work in typically modern societies. While they are democratic, promote free trade, and garuantee personal liberties, below the surface there are ‘invisible’ networks of power. Networks, or systems, that streamline the energies that arise from the growing masses of people in modern societies. The explosively multiplied members of the human species are suppressed, led and dominated in modern times not like their premodern counterparts by visible and violent force, represented in the body of the king, but by ever so many subtle signposts that direct their lives.

The development of modern power systems can thus be seen to endanger politics as such, as the free public exchange of views and ideologies. Power systems proliferate on their own, so to speak, and gobble up what Arendt has called action: free dialogue to make decisions about shared life. Two main principles are at work in the modern power systems, we read in the Panopticum chapter: discipline and exclusion. In other metaphors: training and purification. What has to be prevented are uncontrollable situations that result from the pure fact that numbers of people are growing, and that they tend to live in ever closer contact in large agglomorations. Foucault points to the historical fact that the large and deadly epidemics that plagued Europe gave rise to the first attempts to purify and train societies in systematic ways, introducing the idea of quarantaine, of regulating movement, hygienic procedures, etcetera:

“Behind the disciplinary mechanisms can be read the haunting memory of ‘contagions’, of the plague, of rebellions, crimes, vagabondage, desertions, people who appear and disappear, live and die in disorder.” (p. 198)

This sentence now struck me, and reminded me of another sentence, in Derrida’s Specters of Marx, and produced the following train of thought. Specters of Marx speaks, among so many other things, about ‘clandestine’ immigration – describing the undocumented as part of the – anonymous – ‘new international’: those who, across borders, crossing borders, undermine the powers that be. In Derrida’s sentence, we can recognize the same double strategy of normalization:

“One should not rush to make of the clandestine immigrant an illegal alien or, what always risks coming down to the same thing, to domesticate him.” (p. 219)

Making illegal, excluding, ‘purifying’ society of him, or domesticating, training or disciplining him. And these ‘run the risk’ of coming down to the same, says Derrida: both becoming mechanisms to stop the fear of the stranger, who is understood to ‘contaminate’ and ‘undermine’ the modern power systems. Systems that regulate modern mass societies. What modern citizens of the earth fear in the ‘people who appear and disappear’, without stamp of approval, without passport, health insurance or work permit – those who even ‘live and die in disorder’ – is the breakdown of orderly society – where we, inhabitants of the panopticum, content prisoners of modernity so to speak, are barred in by the securities we know. Those who do not live in them, but use them, who transgress their rules by their very living, making their living from those systems while disrespecting and disregarding them – they create the chaos that modernity fears and always again tries to supress.

Foucault and Derrida are often characterized as ‘postmodern’ thinkers. This means no more or less than that they seem to have been able to look beyond the boundaries of the modernist panopticum – describing what is at work in it. They were not utopians, sketching a new vision for societies, for utopias only make sense in the modernist belief in designed societies. So what have they done in their works? They have, to my view, tried to open the eyes of ‘the Romans’ that their world is coming to an end, so that they may be prepared for something else. What kind of something else? Disorganization and disease? Rebellion and violence? Not necessarily. Perhaps something that is modest and immodest at the same time: the coming of a public space, a space of action, of politics in the true sense of the word: exchanging views and… perhaps not ideologies, but rather experiences. Next to the violence and loud language of today I see people working to repair and transform spaces meant for dialogue and connection, recreate them from the waste of crumbling power systems so to speak. An uncertain undertaking, as the future is, as always, open.

Michel Foucault Discipline and Punish, The Birth of the Prison, Penguin Books, 1977 [French original, 1975]

Jacques Derrida Specters of Marx, The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International, Routledge, 1994 [French original, 1993]

I have been silent for too long. The reason was not, surely not, being tired of blogging. As usual once a week an idea for a post sprang into my mind. But over the past months, I could never sit with some rest to write it. There were more papers to write, or finish for publication than I was used to, as a result of the many conferences I was lucky to go to over the past one and a half year. A common book project which I initiated about two years ago was suddenly asking for the work to be done, as a publisher came on board. There was a sudden increase in invitations to speak at book presentations and events for a wider public. And teaching just had to go on as usual. It seemed longtime investments in what matters to me in philosophy were now coming together – with movements in the world around me. Such a time is called momentum – a window for action after long preparations which one didn’t know if they would lead anywhere, and where, if so.

Reflecting on the change in myself that accompanies this momentum, I often had to think of a story, told by a friend I met in my first year of philosophy, in 1980. This friend was deeply involved in yoga, meditation and what we now call spirituality. Back then it was called mysticism. Like a Jehova’s witness, she was always pulling me into conversations on spiritual matters, and said she was convinced that althangela-81-4-2ough I was burying myself in the classical curriculum of my philosophy studies, she knew that I was really oriented toward the mystical. I protested the word, as ‘becoming one with the One’ did not attract me – a fan of negative dialectics and critical thinking. In the end, of course, we had more in common than we both would admit, and we entered into a fundamental conversation that lasted for 16 years. Then my friend (who had changed to religious studies in 1981, out of protest against what we now call the white canon in philosophy) at the moment she was about to start her PhD project on sufi mysticism in the middle ages, and already was making headway with learning Arabic and Persian, died.

The story she told me, in an attempt to convince me to turn to the spiritual, was from Carlos Castaneda’s famous books on his journey into native American shamanism. She tried to convince me to read Castaneda by recounting he had embarked on his surprising journey, full of personal challenges and spiritual visions, from the moment he had decided to simply say ‘yes’ to anything that came upon his path. So he said yes when he was asked to become the pupil of a native American shaman.

To me saying yes like that was almost like blasphemy. Negative dialectics, you see. Keeping distance, making detours, looking at what divides and taking its painful realizations in, were what I lived by. Distance over against nearness. And this was not just a matter of psychology, I knew it was necessary to get where I needed to be to understand something in this life. Long before I started this blog I wrote what I called my ‘log’ – a personal handwritten diary of events and experiences in my philosophical life. In that log, I once wrote that my life was about continuous detours. Moving somewhere, but returning every time to find that I could not enter, not say ‘yes’.

Now I find myself saying yes all the time – to the many unexpected invitations that come towards me, like the exciting one that came just this week – to come over to the university of Essex to share my experience with introducing intercultural and African philosophy in teaching. Entering, saying yes, is a great change to me, and the interesting thing is that I didn’t give up my critical approach in (and to) philosophy to get there. The world around me has changed. The world has taken many detours too, with devastating consequences, and more are happening even now. In present times, however, new platforms that urge for change are springing up – outside, but now gradually also inside academia. Now that I am learning to say yes, I find companions who have been getting to this same place on their own lonely journeys. A window in time has opened and one never knows for how long it will remain so. Criticism is wanted, and now directly transforms into affirmation for those working for positive changes. This is called momentum.

In this blog I have commemorated my friend Reva van Haaster, who died in 1997 – I have hardly known a more dedicated, thorough, and unprejudiced researcher than her, and she was also that friend who brought flowers when you had passed a difficult exam… Over the years we pursued a dialogue between our often diverging viewpoints, inspired by true friendship and love for knowledge.

This post is also a greeting to all my philosophical friends, new and old, you know who you are. Let’s enjoy the momentum and make a difference!

The photo shows me, 1981, a fan of negative dialectics and critical theory – still pursuing philosophy after my friend had left the studies.

Today I started preparing the class on phenomenology I will be co-teaching the next six weeks. My colleague and I prepared the study program earlier, of course, and made the choice of texts, but now I am close-reading the text for the first session – which is tomorrow. A lovely text, although it bewilders me sometimes – or, wait – that is not a failing, but actually a positive point, that it bewilders!

The bewilderment follows from the space-in-between the text takes, explicitly: in between ‘methods’ or ‘approaches’ or ‘styles. Sara Ahmeds Queer Phenomenology is, in her own words, letting such things as queer theory and phenomenology ‘encounter’. Not dialogue with, not conflict, not fuse, not found each other – just ‘encounter’. I see other approaches encounter in her text also. A critical approach, where she brings in the experiences of migrants to dislocate the familiarity of phenomenological ideas of home. But also a deconstructive approach – and this intrigues me most – where she moves ‘the gaze’ (one can lend this word from Foucault here) from the table ‘around which’ Husserl and Heidegger weave their phenomenological reflections, to the table which we have to think to understand where the grand old men were coming from.

When reading her quotation of Heidegger, I am immediately plunged in the bourgeois world I know so well – as the ideal of home-making of my parents:

“What is there in the room there at home is the table (not ‘a’ table among many other tables in other rooms and houses) at which one sits in order to write, have a meal, sew, or play. Everyone sees this right away, e.g. during a visit: it is a writing table, a dining table, a sewing table – such is the primary way in which it is being encountered in itself.” (Ahmed, 45)

Nineteenth century bourgeois idealism, in which the wife sews at the sewing table, the guests gather around the dining table, or perhaps even the card table, and the philosopher secludes himself before and after the social events his wife prepares at the writing table in his study. So many tables! My parents, who had very little money when they married, were striving, while I grew up, to expand the number and diversity of their tables, and to replace the poor, second hand, ones by inherited antiques or newly bought design ones.

As a student, reading myself into women’s literature, I learned that ‘a room of one’s own’, or even a table of one’s own, the prerogative of the modern European intellectual or writer, were only rarely available to women. One of the best Dutch female writers of the early twentieth century, Carry van Bruggen, wrote her novels at the kitchen table. And Ahmed writes about her own writing table from that non-self-evidency when describing moving into a new house:

“There, that will be my desk. Or it could just be the writing table. It is here that I will gather my thoughts. […] On the tables, different objects gather. Making a space feel like home, or becoming at home in a space, is for me about being at my table.” (Ahmed, 11)

Is it a coincidence that just yesterday, talking to someone who has known me all the years that I have been writing and publishing, I memorized the tables where my (Dutch) books were written? The first one, my dissertation on Spinoza, was written on an early Atari computer, on a small white desk I had bought after moving into an appartment for the first time. The second, the book on nature in ethics, my most voluminous one, was written on a Windows computer, at the same desk, in the study corner of the small house where I lived next – with my back to the kids’ toys strewn around the room, as well as to the kitchen in the back. The third book, the small one on truth in religion and science,  was written at my parent’s old, discarded, forty years old ‘design’ table, in the attic of the somewhat larger house that came after. I worked on a laptop from then on, to save space – a thing still not very available. The fourth book, the philosophy of spirituality study book, was written in yet another house, a smaller one – at the same old table that was now the dining table, sewing table, and writing table – actually the only table. The fifth book, the one on spirits in modernity, I memorized, was written in the smallest room in the next house, almost feeling I had to apologize for occupying a room of my own, and the desk was now one I had purchased in the thrift shop for 15 euros – as the large old table of my parents was promoted to dining table once more…

And now, recently, I have moved my books and papers, to a spacious room I call my study, adorned even with the American desk of my grandfather, the desk that was the materialization of my father’s authority when I was young. The desk with the many drawers, even secret ones. The desk underneath which I hid as a toddler, feeling safe in the dark confined space between the colorful American wood. The most beourgois DSC_0008-2.jpgwriting space I have ever used… The first time I sat at it to work, I had the strange sensation to have changed places with my father – being the adult with the authority to speak now. But since I have it, I have not (yet) written a book. Is it a coincidence? Or is it because inhabiting this ‘male’ space as a woman, and not just sitting in a corner where I am not noticed, somehow eats my endurance in writing away? It might be just the adjustment, in which case my next book, the first one in English, will be written next year at my grandfather’s American desk. Or, if it doesn’t work, I will pick up my laptop and sit somewhere, at the dining table, or the attic, I don’t mind. As long as the writing keeps on flowing…

Quotations are from Sara Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology. Orientations, Objects, Others, of 2006. Durham & London: Duke University Press.


It is more than twenty years ago that I first read Arendts Eichmann in Jerusalem. A Report on the Banality of Evil. Since that time I have regularly referred to the work in classes, and further pondered the consequences of her research into the role Adolf Eichmann played in the murder of millions of European Jews. What remained with me most was her view on the problematic side effects of bureIMG_3703aucracy. The positive goal of bureaucracy can be described as the equal treatment of citizens, and the efficient delivery of goods delivered by state and non-state organizations. Its negative side effect is that it offers the possibility for individuals to wash their hands from their complicity in malfunctioning and even evil procedures. Eichmann the bureaucrat, as he could be seen in the Jerusalem court after his capture in 1960, showed, according to Arendt, an incapacity to think, to put himself in someone else’s shoes, to see a human being as having a right to its own life.

When the political atmosphere in Europe became more xenophobic over the last ten years, and organizations simultaneously relied more and more on bureaucratic procedures to optimize their functioning, I read Arendt’s view on the banality of evil as offering a model to understand present times. I saw the disappearance of individual responsibility of managers and administrator, of teachers, police, scientists and doctors behind protocol as a moral danger for society.  I didn’t realize, however, that for evil to happen, it is not enough that someone with evil intent, or just a morally weak character, can hide behind procedures. Because a well-functioning bureacracy, with well-described responsibilities, and procedures for complaint, still contains obstacles to abuse, which protect the rights of individuals affected.

What the new historical research of Stangneth, which I am currently reading, shows, is that Eichmann and his complicits not just surfed on the possibilities of normal bureaucratic structures, but that, under the guise of being very well organized, Nazi rule actually internally destroyed certain essential elements of bureaucracy, especially official hierarchies of responsibility. I speak here of something different from what, in a recent post, I called ‘freedom to act’. Freedom to act essentially exists for every individual, in those pockets where bureaucratic and legal systems fail to reach. To put it simply: at all times any individual can try to go around the system, calling on an original freedom to act as a human being. What Stangneth shows to have happened in Nazi rule is something else: it is the selective taking more power than ‘the system’ allows by certain individuals, under the protection of the ‘highest power’, the ideological leader of the movement (the ‘Führer’), a highest power which promises its loyal servants to back them up by unlimited violence.

So this new study on Eichmann ‘before Jerusalem’ makes clear how Eichmann actually had much more power than he claimed to have had when he defended his actions in court. He did not have a high rank, but this was not very important in Nazi dealings. It was even beneficial, in order to carry out things that should remain hidden from the public. Being “on the Führer’s special mission”, Eichmann did not need to call on hierarchical responsibilities to get things done: ‘in a regime governed by relationships, only personal access to someone in power carried any real influence.’ (Stangneth, p. 40) Stangneth further analyzes many sources which were not available to Arendt (especially the so called Sassen interviews, held while Eichmann lived in Argentina), but also departs from a quite different anthropology. While for Arendt an evil person is one who lacks the potential to live the idea of Aristotelean practical reason, someone who goes along with a system that ignores humanity, for Stangneth an evil person is a responsible agent, who is perhaps not highly intelligent, but who shows talent in using a psychology of fear to rule others. ‘”Much more power… was attributed to me than I actually had”, Eichmann explained. And “this fear” of his presumed power meant that “everyone felt he was being watched.”‘ (Stangneth, p. 26)

Now, through this new book, we can see how ambitious, to the point of megalomania, Eichmann was. Still, Stangneth’s analysis doesn’t fall back on the simple and dangerous idea that there are just certain evil persons who are to blame for the worst crimes of history. While restoring full responsibility to the criminal, she also maintains the importance, shown by thinkers like Arendt and Foucault, of scrutinizing structures of power to explain what happened. What is new, however, in her work, is that her analysis of how those structures work is more rich, more complex – dissecting the different workings of journalism, state violence, the psychology of fear, and the effects of symbolism on human thinking  – to provide a more real and a less naive understanding of how evil in the midst of ‘modern civilization’ can be organized and carried out. Like Raul Hilberg she follows the view, not of the victim, but of the perpetrator, to understand the workings of what was done.

As to Eichmann, she makes clear that he was a great actor, putting forward a different image of himself as circumstances required. What he did was make use of people’s unreflected ideas about humanity. Thus it could happen, Stangneth writes, that ‘even someone of average intelligence (Eichmann, AR) can induce a highly intelligent person (Arendt, AR) to defeat herself with her own weapon: her desire to see her expectations fulfilled.’ (Stangneth, p. xxv) Why this book fascinates, is, therefore, because it shows how a new kind of writing history is necessary for a philosophical understanding of humanity. A writing of history that investigates the psychological, moral, and cultural epistemic frameworks that guide common understanding – to prevent following them naively, and to make sure to count with the possibility that, apart from their already inherent distortions, they may also be used to consciously mislead. Such a historiography warns philosophical anthropology to not take its own idealism as its unreflected point of departure, but to scrutinize its own hopes, dreams, judgments, i.e. all of its normative frameworks, as a potential heel of Achilles.

Citations are taken from Regina Stangneth, Eichmann before Jerusalem. The unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer. London: Penguin Random House, 2014.

Another shooting of a US citizen by US police is raising heated discussion – this time an armed citizen, apparently, who according to the police returned fire when she was shot at. Korryn Gaines, the 23 year old who was killed, posted a video some time earlier about her being stopped in her car, while driving without license plates. I was intrigued by her calm and her consistent asking the officer about his Delegation of Authority Order, which I never heard about, and the officer had neither. I wanted to understand what this was about. Some quick reading brought the concept in connection with management theory, legal structures of authority, so called sovereign citizen movements, and the question of freedom and responsiblity – which I felt the need to research further. Now, almost all discussions over the shooting of Gaines are about factual questions: whether she was mentally impaired, whether she was a good mother or not, what about her life, her age, her gun, her boyfriend; and then again about the actions of the officers, could they have done this or that, were they afraid or out to kill her – and tend to overlook the political and anti-political structures she obviously worried about before her death.

So what structures are regulating the relations between citizens and governing powers generally, and how do freedom and responsibility play out in them? And especially when police officers are concerned, who are supposed to be delegated public servants of those powers. Obviously, after bad experiences with being detained and a hostile bureacracy Gaines had decided to not recognize the authority of the police over her life any more. She had given up on the idea that ‘the law’ was lawful, and working for the freedom of herself as a citizen. She explained in videos and in written texts her reasons for not trusting the police and for not complying to their orders, and expressed that she would rather be killed than to cooperate with a system that could kill her also when she would cooperate. On her car she had a card saying ‘Free Traveler’,  and an officer said she acted as a ‘Free Person’,  suggesting that to be a special political position, instead of a general human condition. So who has decided over whose life and in which framework?

Delegation of authority functions in non-official managerial as well as in official contexts, where governing bodies exert power over people. The basic idea it represents is that authority is something else than force/brute power/violence. Authority is recognized as legitimate power, and in political terms it is based on representation. Governmental structures in a democracy are supposed to represent the people, and those working on behalf of the authorities are supposed to legally represent those. This is to make sure that officials will not act out of personal motives, nor be blindly driven by any systemic forces that may be at play in those structures. In businesses or non-governmental organizations the idea is to make a difference between personal responsibility of workers to work for the aim of the organization, and the responsibility of those who are leading the organization to officially back up those people who have the function to take certain decisions. In the course of my life I have observed several times, those in higher management positions to let someone lower in the hierarchy carry out actions that might cause negative reactions without officially delegating them. So when the negative reactions come, their subordinates will carry the responsibility, and not they themselves, as they never ordered them to do this. This shows the importance, in matters concerning the life, health and happiness of individuals that authority is properly delegated, in order for agents to be held accountable for their actions.

In the case of Korryn Gaines, her request for a DOAO was an attempt to protect herself against what she perceived as unlawful actions of the police. The point here is not to determine whether she was legally right or wrong, the question is that what is lawful in the last resort depends on what human beings in a community together hold to be so. What is lawful can in principle always be questioned and put up for discussion. The law can also be ignored or obstructed publicly by individuals out of protest (as in civil disobedience, which is something else than ignoring or obstructing the law for criminal actions). So what is clear is that, not just in the US, but time and again in all modern nations, and especially in the US because of the deadly violence with which confrontations are so often played out, people question whether the police is there for the citizens or for something else. They question, whether they represent a real authority, which implies being officially delegated by democratically recognized officials to do certain things, or whether they act out of other drives. So did Korryn Gaines.

When our modern national states were first being formed, political philosophers tried to make the authority of their governmental bodies understandable by referring to the ‘state of nature’ which was to be understood as a war of each against all – a state which legality should overcome by ‘the people’ transferring their natural right to fend and fight for themselves to the sovereign state power. The state power again was to be exerted by the government and its derived institutions. Spinoza, one of the important thinkers of natural right and the state, warned that in things political, individual people are not just moved by reason, but also driven by irrational passions – which are to be understood as emotional motives which fail to see my own good in relation to the good of others. Passions can be narcissistic, therefore, as well as self-destructive. Or both at the same time. He made clear that for all its power, a state is a fragile thing, continuously in threat of being undermined by individuals (citizens or officials) who do not base their actions on reason, but on passions.

Since the 17th century political philosophy has found new frames to understand political reality. At work in this situation is also something which is described, a.o., by Foucault, and Weber: the system, the complex, the bureaucracy, and its potential to bring generally sane individuals to despair. The system actually undermines authority, as described above, and the responsibilty and accountability that goes along with it. It obstructs the process through which individuals legitimize (ideally) state power through democracy, and through which the authority of the governmental bodies in its turn delegates responsibility to lower officials. How does it do so? Not by replacing reason by passions, but by replacing the (Spinozistic) reason that relates my good to that of the others by a simulacrum – an objectified body of abstractions of real relations. Installing a dense thicket of stamps, identifications, papers, postal services, etcetera, it silently subdues personal responsibility and freedom. The thing with bureaucracy is that, if used correctly, it can protect people, because it regulates and documents everything without differentiation between the status of persons. But used falsely, it can cover up, and even facilitate crimes from governments to the people who live on the piece of earth they rule over. This can be done by denying them (full) citizenship, or by blurring lines of delegation of authority – if no clear order has been given for a certain act of violence, nobody can be held responsible afterwards. We all know cases of encrypted orders like ‘solve the problem’ instead of ‘expell/kill/fire/detain person x’.

In this setting it is clear that there is freedom to act – for perpetrators of evil as well as for those standing up for what’s right. The ‘law’ strictly speaking cannot (and neither can the laws of bureaucratic management) determine human actions like laws of nature determine the movement of natural bodies. People can, and even have to, step outside the rules, to act freely – so they are responsible for their actions, and free – this is not an extraordinary situation and doesn’t depend on any factual aspects – it is the political situation, in which we put all rules and laws up for discussion again. So freedom and responsibility can be appropriated in the voids of laws and rule driven systems. And it is done, all the time, although laws and rules obfuscate that. Police officers take the freedom in the void where they can interpret a person as a danger to themselves or others, and then again are within the law to shoot. And someone like Korryn Gaines takes her freedom deciding to drive without license plates, or to resist arrest, as an act of civil disobedience. The law should protect her life all the same, and here is a conflict within the law between the perceived safety of the officers and the safety of the person they want to arrest. It is one of the voids where people are free and responsible, all of them, so calling her a ‘free person’ is superfluous. Of course she was. And so were the officers who killed her. Every individual, even though living under laws and bureaucracies, remains responsible for what they do. The state of nature is never far away, and no state power should make us forget that.



I took care to try and analyze just one aspect of this case, to clarify the issue of authority and freedom. This analysis of course leaves many other questions out, that also should be asked. Questions of historical violence by white people against black people, questions of social injustice, questions of the situation in prisons, for men and for women, where sexual violence is very common. But those questions again touch the factual – they regard why someone acted the way they did. They provide the content of actual political questions. I just wanted to discuss the formal aspects of the place and role of the political and the anti-political regarding the freedom of persons to act in this case.