Cynthia Willett brings together diverse insights from social psychology, classical and contemporary literature, and legal and justice theory to redefine the basis of the moral and legal person. Feminists, communitarians, and postmodern thinkers have made clear that classical liberalism, with its emphasis on individual autonomy and excessive rationalism, is severely limited. Although she is sympathetic with the liberal view, Willett finds it necessary to go further. For her, attention to the social dimensions of the family and civil society is critical (...) if issues of race, gender, class, and sexuality are to be taken seriously. Interdependency, not autonomy, is of increasing significance in an era of globalization. Willett proposes an alternate normative theory that recognizes the impact of social forces on individual well-being. Citizenship in a democracy should not be defined solely on the basis of rights to autonomy, such as bare rights to property or free speech, she explains. Rather, citizenship should be defined first of all in terms of the rights, responsibilities, and capacities of the social person. It is within the African American tradition of political thought that Willett finds a more useful definition of human identity and political freedom. The African American experience offers a compelling vision of social change and a deeper understanding of what it means to be a social person. By focusing on everyday battles against racism, Willett contends, we can gain valuable insight into the meaning of justice. (shrink)
Interspecies Ethics explores animals' vast capacity for agency, justice, solidarity, humor, and communication across species. The social bonds diverse animals form provide a remarkable model for communitarian justice and cosmopolitan peace, challenging the human exceptionalism that drives modern moral theory. Situating biosocial ethics firmly within coevolutionary processes, this volume has profound implications for work in social and political thought, contemporary pragmatism, Africana thought, and continental philosophy. Interspecies Ethics develops a communitarian model for multispecies ethics, rebalancing the overemphasis on competition in (...) the original Darwinian paradigm by drawing out and stressing the cooperationist aspects of evolutionary theory through mutual aid. The book's ethical vision offers an alternative to utilitarian, deontological, and virtue ethics, building its argument through rich anecdotes and clear explanations of recent scientific discoveries regarding animals and their agency. Geared toward a general as well as a philosophical audience, the text illuminates a variety of theories and contrasting approaches, tracing the contours of a postmoral ethics. (shrink)
In ____Maternal Ethics and Other Slave Moralities__ which includes the first extended philosophical discussion of the works of Frederick Douglass, Cynthia Willett puts forward a novel theory of ethical subjectivity that is aimed to counter prevailing pathologies of sexist, racist Eurocentric culture. Weaving together accounts of the self drawn from African-American and European philosophies, psychoanalysis, slave narratives and sociology, Willett interrogates what Hegel locates as the core of the self: the desire for.
A radical new approach to humor, where traditional targets become its agents Humor is often dismissed as cruel ridicule or harmless fun. But what if laughter is a vital force to channel rage against patriarchy, Islamophobia, mass incarceration? To create moments of empathy and dialogue between #Black Lives Matter and the police? These and other such questions are at the heart of this powerful reassessment of humor. Placing theorists in conversation with comedians, Uproarious offers a full-frontal approach to the very (...) foundation of comedy and its profound political impact. Here Cynthia Willett and Julie Willett address the four major theories of humor—superiority, relief, incongruity, and social play—through the lens of feminist and game-changing comics such as Wanda Sykes, Margaret Cho, Hannah Gadsby, Hari Kondabolu, and Tig Notaro. They take a radical and holistic approach to the understanding of humor, particularly of humor deployed by those from groups long relegated to the margins and propose a powerful new understanding of humor as a force that can engender politically progressive social movements. Drawing on a range of cross-disciplinary sources, from philosophies and histories of humor to the psychology and physiology of laughter to animal studies, Uproarious offers a richer understanding of the political and cathartic potential of humor. (shrink)
Comedy, from social ridicule to the unruly laughter of the carnival, provides effective tools for reinforcing social patterns of domination as well as weapons for emancipation. In Irony in the Age of Empire, Cynthia Willett asks: What could embody liberation better than laughter? Why do the oppressed laugh? What vision does the comic world prescribe? For Willett, the comic trumps standard liberal accounts of freedom by drawing attention to bodies, affects, and intimate relationships, topics which are usually neglected by political (...) philosophy. Willett's philosophical reflection on comedy issues a powerful challenge to standard conceptions of freedom by proposing a new kind of freedom that is unapologetically feminist, queer, and multiracial. This book provides a wide-ranging, original, thoughtful, and expansive discussion of citizenship, social manners, and political freedom in our world today. (shrink)
Like lynching and other mass hysterias, xenophobia exemplifies a contagious, collective wave of energy and hedonic quality that can point toward a troubling unpredictability at the core of political and social systems. While earlier studies of mass hysteria and popular discourse assume that cooler heads (aka rational individuals with their logic) could and should regain control over those emotions that are deemed irrational, and that boundaries are assumed healthy only when intact, affect studies pose individuals as nodes of biosocial networks (...) larger than themselves. Thus rather than suggesting that the individual can only prevent societal harm by gaining command and patrolling the borders of an autonomous self, we embrace the notion that affects can exert a positive and transformative force on a social reality that is resistant to top-down policy intervention and any straightforward moral or logical plea. (shrink)
This volume addresses a wide variety of moral concerns regarding slavery as an institutionalized social practice. By considering the slave's critical appropriation of the natural rights doctrine, the ambiguous implications of various notions of consent and liberty are examined. The authors assume that, although slavery is undoubtedly an evil social practice, its moral assessment stands in need of a more nuanced treatment. They address the question of what is wrong with slavery by critically examining, and in some cases endorsing, certain (...) principles derived from communitarianism, paternalism, utilitarianism, and jurisprudence. (shrink)
Perhaps no other novel has received as much attention from moral philosophers as South African writer J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace . The novel is ethically compelling and yet no moral theory explains its force. Despite clear Kantian moments, neither rationalism nor self-respect can account for the strange ethical task that the protagonist sets for himself. Calling himself the dog man, like the ancient Cynics, this shamelessly cynical protagonist takes his cues for ethics not from humans but from animals. He does (...) not however claim much in the way of empathy or understanding of animals, and his own odd motives remain a puzzle throughout the stages of his ethical transformation. Many scholars approach Coetzee’s text through an ethics of alterity, and even argue that Disgrace is exemplary in this regard. Kristeva’s rendition of alterity ethics brings us close to the novel’s vision, and yet the novel points towards a more primordial basis for ethics in the search for meaning through the human encounter with other animal species. (shrink)
In an era of global interdependence, the concept of autonomy may no longer name our core moral need. Shifting friendships and enmities across political boundaries bear significant consequences for the individual. Perhaps social alliances and hostilities have always had an impact on the flourishing of individuals and communities. But globalization (especially as viewed through the technology of the information age) magnifies the impact of external forces on sovereign bodies. These forces remind individuals of the need to establish the right kind (...) of connections, and diminish (but do not exclude) the relative importance of autonomy for moral and political discourse. (shrink)
Any interspecies ethics could do well to flip the claim of human exceptionalism several times on its head. Before entertaining a claim to re-naturalize human beings (with the risk of a reductive model of biology), the remarkable communicative, cultural, and cognitive skills of other creatures deserve more investigation. The usual line-up of metaphysical suspects for shoring up human superiority—impartial reason, moral or spiritual freedom, and self-awareness—have been used to gravely overstate our human capacities while obscuring genuinely mind-bending powers that cross (...) species barriers. If there is a common path for ethical and spiritual enlightenment, as an alternative to humanism’s rational enlightenment, it does not seem to originate in any cross-species capacity for high-level reason but in an affect-laden social intelligence instead. (shrink)
What a pleasure to have such subtle thinkers and scholars as Bill Martin and Andrew Cutrofello reflect on the relation of irony and comedy to politics and philosophy through their commentary on my new book. To set the tone, Martin begins with a koan, or a parody of one, “What if a tree told a joke in the woods and there was no one there to hear it?” He means, I believe, to sound a warning on the limits of irony (...) in our serious, or perhaps, Martin would say, our seriously idiotic, times. By the end of his discussion, Martin wonders if perhaps a politics of irony might not lead to greater cynicism in our morally upside-down times and if those Wall Street rip-off artists merit something more than satire—they may .. (shrink)
ABSTRACT The function of the comic in the midst of tragedy is not clear. After all, is it simply comic relief that wounded nations, communities, or individuals seek? Tragedy has long been cast as memory and mourning while comedy offers for the masses a Nietzschean moment of joyful forgetting and for the Stoic mind a measure of transcendence from our grief. The latter view came into prominence for modern American culture with the nineteenth-century satirist Mark Twain, who wrote that “the (...) secret source of humor itself is not joy but sorrow,” which has been interpreted through the often-quoted formula: comedy is tragedy plus time. The assumption is that we need some distance emotionally in order to mock or transcend the tragic. While we grant the humor of transcendence can produce some momentary relief through emotional distance, we wonder if there might be another way that humor can deal with suffering? Popular psychology often speaks of five stages of grief, and while that progression seems too linear and simplistic, we find that the now much more inclusive comic stage has something to offer their audiences struggling to make sense of a volatile world. (shrink)
Between the Psyche and the Social is the first collection that specifically features the field of psychoanalytic social theory emerging in and between psychoanalysis, feminism, postcolonial studies, and queer theory, and across the disciplines of philosophy, literary, film, and cultural studies. This collection of essays takes the psychoanalytic study of social oppression in some new directions by engaging—indeed, stirring up—unconscious fantasies and ethical tensions at the heart of social subjectivity.
The eight essays contained in this book explore the portrayal of women, and various philosophical responses to that portrayal in contemporary post-civil rights society. They bring feminist voices to the conversation about gender and attests to the importance of feminist critique in what is sometimes claimed to be a post-feminist era.
The dissertation seeks to locate a post-Hegelian response to the question of orientation. Such a response would neither return to the "totalizing drive" of dialectic nor yield to the "nihilistic gestures" of deconstruction but would traverse and transfigure both modes of thought. Part 1 isolates non-dialectical tropes which implicitly orient crucial transitions in Hegel's Logic, Phenomenology, and Aesthetics. Textual analyses of these tropes suggest that dialectical movement depends paradoxically upon the systematic undoing of the Hegelian demand for total knowledge. Part (...) 2 finds that the same orienting tropes reappear in texts of Derrida's where they now work against the paralyzing effects of deconstruction. These tropic movements prefigure a deconstructive notion of orientation which would exceed the inversions of undecidability. (shrink)
An interspecies ethics flips the claim of human exceptionalism several times on its head. Here we consider not only our own species’s animality but also the sacred experiences discovered across a range of species. The essay begins with an excursion alongside wild baboons who, as witnessed by Barbara Smuts, display a sense of wonder before a river’s still pools of water. From there we travel up and down the vertical vector of spiritual experience. The disgusting and the ridiculous at the (...) bottom end of this vector turn out to bear as much ethical relevance as elevated experiences of moral beauty and the sublime, for ourselves and other animals. (shrink)
Bruce Janz, Jessica Locke, and Cynthia Willett interact in this exchange with different aspects of Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad’s book Human Being, Bodily Being. Through “constructive inter-cultural thinking”, they seek to engage with Ram-Prasad’s “lower-case p” phenomenology, which exemplifies “how to think otherwise about the nature and role of bodiliness in human experience”. This exchange, which includes Ram-Prasad’s reply to their interventions, pushes the reader to reflect more about different aspects of bodiliness.
Contrary to the popular belief that feminism has gained a foothold in the many disciplines of the academy, the essays collected in Theorizing Backlash argue that feminism is still actively resisted in mainstream academia. Contributors to this volume consider the professional, philosophical, and personal backlashes against feminist thought, and reflect upon their ramifications. The conclusion is that the disdain and irrational resentment of feminism, even in higher education, amounts to a backlash against progress.