25 Politics and the Life of the Mind | Alisa Rosenthal

As a political theorist, my primary interest is less in the development of a new interpretation of a historical text than in evaluating and developing political philosophies in terms of addressing contemporary social problems and political practices. Thus one of my current projects emphasizes the futility of looking to conceptions of liberalism developed by such theorists as Locke, Mill, and Kant for protecting individuals today from state interference with bodily autonomy. Similarly, my research into democracy and suffering offers an alternative possibility to the oft-asserted dichotomy between feminist ethics and moral philosophy and to the bind such a dichotomy poses for those who attend both to questions of abstract justice and to issues of respect for particularity. I am drawn to political theory precisely because it offers the opportunity to reject the false dichotomy between politics and the “life of the mind” that is both descriptively inaccurate and politically unproductive.

The first of these projects is a co-authored book with Julie White (Ohio University) in which we explore the connections and relationships between democratic theory, suffering, and injustice. In The Faces of Injustice, Judith Shklar enjoins her readers to begin by “giving injustice its due” and this injunction is our starting point. An adequate democratic theory and the practices it justifies must, we argue, provide openings for the political recognition of both a victim’s sense of injustice and provide remedies for the structural conditions that produce injustice. Assessing both liberal and deliberative democratic approaches with this in mind, we find them inadequately attentive to the obstacles of recognition and remedy. Liberal democratic theories, both because of their narrow vision of the political and their strong commitment to individual autonomy, present substantial obstacles to the political recognition of injustice. Deliberative theories might be assumed to offer better assurance that public dialogue will create openings for a broader political recognition of vulnerability and suffering – a necessary, if not sufficient condition for remedy. Unfortunately, such theories rarely consider the constitutive effect of suffering on individual subjectivity and the ways in which the “inexpressibility of pain” makes deliberation about such experiences impossible

Adequate attention to these obstacles must begin with an understanding that the sense of injustice is not reducible to responses to that which is not legal. To truly give injustice its due, injustice must be recognized as more than just prelude to, or a momentary breakdown of, justice. As Shklar suggests, we cannot see injustice as though it were a “surprising abnormality” but must recognize the continuous operation of injustice within the law and established polity. Thus, senses of injustice –victims’ accounts of their own suffering– must be accorded respect, while official accounts of justice are carefully interrogated. Attention to injustice, the recognition that the sense of injustice is much more than simply the occasional absence of justice, makes visible not only the limits of contemporary theories of justice, but also the limits of much democratic theory as well. Put another way, victims of injustice face obstacles to participating in both liberal justice systems and more formally inclusive democratic processes. Where these obstacles are understood as resource-based, some legal and many democratic theorists have tried to address them with redistributive approaches. Yet, particularly in the most extreme cases of suffering, the obstacles to such participation may have less to do with resources and more to do with the ways in which the experience of suffering constitutes the subjectivity of victims. If democratic practices are to advance the recognition of suffering and remedy the institutional practices that perpetuate injustice, they will need to recognize the ways in which domination as a set of experiences constitutes subjectivity. We have presented drafts of three chapters at national conferences and are now working on the close examinations of political apologies, testimonio literature, and Truth and Reconciliation Commission testimony which will provide the basis for a theory of democracy that begins from the historicized subject and emphasizes both recognition of suffering and remedies for the structural conditions which produce it.

My second project concerns the problem of state invasion of the bodies of its citizens and residents. Whereas my dissertation looked only at the ways in which such invasions illustrate a failure of liberal political theory, my current work offers analysis of the ways in which contestations about bodily integrity illuminate broader tensions within liberalism. For example, by examining such practices as mandatory drug testing, genetic screening, and compulsory DNA samples, I evaluate the concept of “self” assumed and produced by historical and contemporary interpretations of the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination. The distinction between protecting suspects from being forced to testify verbally against themselves, but failing to protect suspects from being forced to “testify” bodily against themselves, relies upon a false mind/body separation, assumed and instantiated by such theorists as Descartes and Aristotle. Many scholars have addressed the pitfalls, both constitutional and ethical, of compelling self-incrimination (and even more have addressed the problem of the mind/body dichotomy) but few have investigated the theoretical dimensions of this problem in relation to actual instances of its occurrence and its perpetuation by the state. New technologies of punishment and renewed acceptance of old technologies of punishment raise important questions about the constitution of the self who is the subject of that punishment. Much of this work was developed while I was a Visiting Scholar at the Institute of Legal Studies in Madison, Wisconsin during the summer of 2003. This summer, as a participant at the Institute for Constitutional Studies Research Seminar on Constitutionalism, I presented an article from this project (“A Dangerous Slippage: From Jacobson to Buck and Beyond”).

In addition to my own research projects, I serve often as a discussant on panels at national conferences. Although considered a chore by some, I truly enjoy the opportunity to bring disparate projects together, to identify commonalities across them, to explore points of convergence and disjuncture, and to meaningfully engage works in progress. Like co-authoring, serving as a discussant is a welcome opportunity for the often isolated work of scholarship to become collaborative and interdisciplinary.