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The Body Problematic

Political Imagination in Kant and Foucault

Laura Hengehold


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The Body Problematic

Political Imagination in Kant and Foucault

Laura Hengehold

“This thought-provoking work on Foucault reads him against a Kantian background—replacing transcendental critique with genealogical critique. Locating Kant’s critical standpoint in a resistance to being dominated by such problematic limits as a thing in itself and an infinite subject, Hengehold goes on to explore how Foucault treats madness, sexuality, and delinquency as individual embodied modes of resistance to the limit concepts of the body politic. This book will be of interest to readers in contemporary philosophy, aesthetics, feminism, critical theory, and the social sciences.”


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Late in life, Foucault identified with “the critical tradition of Kant,” encouraging us to read both thinkers in new ways. Kant’s “Copernican” strategy of grounding knowledge in the limits of human reason proved to stabilize political, social-scientific, and medical expertise as well as philosophical discourse. These inevitable limits were made concrete in historical structures such as the asylum, the prison, and the sexual or racial human body. Such institutions built upon and shaped the aesthetic judgment of those considered “normal.”

Following Kant through all of Foucault’s major works, this book shows how bodies functioned as “problematic objects” in which the limits of post-Enlightenment European power and discourse were imaginatively figured and unified. It suggests ways that readers in a neoliberal political order can detach from the imaginative schemes vested in their bodies and experiment normatively with their own security needs.

“This thought-provoking work on Foucault reads him against a Kantian background—replacing transcendental critique with genealogical critique. Locating Kant’s critical standpoint in a resistance to being dominated by such problematic limits as a thing in itself and an infinite subject, Hengehold goes on to explore how Foucault treats madness, sexuality, and delinquency as individual embodied modes of resistance to the limit concepts of the body politic. This book will be of interest to readers in contemporary philosophy, aesthetics, feminism, critical theory, and the social sciences.”
“By examining Foucault’s writings on Kant and the concept of aesthetic judgment in the work of both philosophers, Hengehold reveals compelling connections between these pivotal thinkers. Reading Foucault through Kant, she offers a serious challenge to critics who would dismiss Foucault’s last works as a mere reduction of ethics to aesthetics. Hengehold’s elegant prose and meticulous scholarship add interest and depth to a very original analysis. Every Foucault scholar needs to read this book.”
“In The Body Problematic, Laura Hengehold develops an ingenious and comprehensive account of the relation between body and State in Kant and Foucault. . . . By laying out the issue, the author has set the bar very high, and thereby done those working in the field a huge favor. We now have a new benchmark that both inspires us and vindicates our work.”

Laura Hengehold is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Case Western Reserve University.



Introduction: Imagination and Problematization

Part 1: The Political Topology of Kantian Reason

Drawing the Boundaries of Pure Reason

Transcendental and Other Topographies

The Quest for Unity

Discursivity and Materiality

The Virtues of Communicability

The Kantian Body—Missing in Action

Part 2: Man and His Doubles: Two Ways to Problematize

Heterotopia and the Phenomenological World

In the Field of the Problematic Object

The Man-Form: Empirical and Transcendental

Materiality and Resemblance: Statements

Materiality and Resemblance: Bodies

An-aesthetic philosophy?

Part 3: Locked in the Market

From Raison d’État to Phobie d’État

Migration of Sovereignty

The Normal and the Normative

Crisis in Liberalism

Negative Anthropology

Afterword: Not Similar to Something, Just Similar



Introduction: Imagination and Problematization

Eleanor Bumpurs, a “270-pound, arthritic sixty-seven-year-old woman,” was shot and killed by New York City police in 1984 for resisting eviction from city housing with a knife (Williams 1991, 136). Her case was one of several that crystallized African-American anger against the New York City police department and a coroner’s office that was reputed to overlook police violence against poor suspects. It occurred during a period when the city of New York was struggling with a financial crisis that the banks only resolved on condition that public services be drastically cut and real estate prices be released from any controls, as they did in other cities and even debtor nations at that time (Harvey 2005, 44–48). Her daughter, who said that she had not been informed about the overdue rent, reported that her mother had suffered in the past from mental illness; housing officials acknowledged that she sometimes “saw Reagan coming through her walls” (Williams 1991, 142; Buder 1984; Raab 1984a). Family members had warned the elderly woman not to allow any strangers into the apartment, under any circumstances.

Although her death had simple physical causes, Mrs. Bumpurs would not have died if not for the way a broad range of personal and institutional expectations construed her body and her freedom. The officers sent to carry out the eviction were members of a special Emergency Service Unit supposedly trained to deal with disturbed persons. Explanations as to why they did not fire warning shots or disable her with mace when she lunged at them with her knife ranged from “she was elderly” and should have been easily subdued to “sometimes, when you’re dealing with a disturbed person, [mace] makes them worse,” and finally, “neighbors would have to be removed” (Buder 1984). In court testimony, no adequate reason was ever presented for firing a second, fatal shot when the first disabled Mrs. Bumpurs’s knife arm (Raab 1985). Legal theorist Patricia Williams challenges us to explain

the animus that inspired such fear and impatient contempt in a police officer that the presence of six other well-armed men could not allay his need to kill a sick old lady fighting off hallucinations with a knife. It seemed to me a fear embellished by something beyond Mrs. Bumpurs herself; something about her that filled the void between her physical, limited presence and the “immediate threat and endangerment to life” in the beholding eyes of the officer. Why was the sight of a knife-wielding woman so fearful to a shotgun-wielding policeman that he had to blow her to pieces as the only recourse, the only way to preserve his physical integrity? (1991, 144)

Williams implies that the something beyond Mrs. Bumpurs’s physical presence existed in the policeman’s imagination and occupied the metaphorical “void” between feelings of loyalty and aggression tied to his membership in this particular unit, his evaluation of the justice involved in evictions, his conception of what a “normal” versus a “disturbed” elderly woman might believe or be capable of doing when confronted with a threat to her home and personal safety, and the conditions under which he was entitled to use deadly force.

However, this void also encompassed the Housing Authority’s unfulfilled expectations of communication with the Division of Social Services responsible for psychiatric evaluations and Mrs. Bumpurs’s family, as well as the family’s reverse expectations. One of the officers defended himself in court by casting suspicion on the motives of her family members, whom he held responsible for not paying the rent themselves (Williams 1991, 142). It was shaped by impersonal categories such as the criteria used to categorize psychiatric illness and the roster of names on which Mrs. Bumpurs entered the “imagination” of agency workers as a more or less urgent case. A psychiatrist had recently pronounced her psychotic, but no coordination with Housing Authority had taken place regarding her finances. Family members disagreed about whether she was really mentally ill (Raab 1984a); Williams also questions whether the eviction was legitimate, since papers were never served to her personally (1991, 136–37). In short, Mrs. Bumpurs’s body was not only “physical,” but had an unknown aspect involving the imagination of other bodies than her own. This also means that in some ontologically significant sense, a part of Mrs. Bumpurs existed in other people’s bodies and codes as well as in her own flesh and language. But she was obviously unable to use this plurality to her advantage; she experienced it as a problem, and not a way to escape or take distance on her poverty.

I am also struck, however, by how often people in similar situations —the disabled, aged, poor, or those with exhausting family and work obligations—form the outer horizon of imagination for those in relatively stable or affluent circumstances. Advertisers, health officials, and banks require us to measure our self-respect against our ability to navigate their simultaneous claims. These institutions and practices project images of the successful consumer we hope to be as well as the loan-suffocated bankruptcy client “we can’t imagine being.” Although rich and poor are not subject to discourses and institutional surveillance in the same way, both have to make sense of expectations emerging from incongruous discourses and decide, against the backdrop of limited psychic resources and time (if not simple finances), which to ignore and which to take seriously. Often we give form to our lives not through specific hopes but by recognizing specific “formed” examples of poverty, bad luck, incompetence, or deviance that stand in for whatever unformed and nonsensical situation we hope to avoid. Crime stories on television and poverty reporting provoke their audiences to identify the “fatal flaw” explaining and tacitly justifying the suffering of others, and thus reinforce their own sense of security (unreasonably, in many cases). One wonders how a complex society that places such demands on the individual can avoid inventing people and situations like Mrs. Bumpurs’s so that “sane” people can recognize and appreciate their own competence, however limited.

It is also worth noting that in some unspecified way, Mrs. Bumpurs did perceive her problem as political rather than merely moral or psychological. By political, I mean she thought her problem arose from power relations at a scale that involved strangers and believed any solution would require changing those power relations. We do not know how literally or metaphorically she saw “Reagan coming through her walls.” But Reagan was the emblem of a sea change in American attitudes toward the poor, the civil rights movement, and the rights of private landlords and investors or entrepreneurs vis-à-vis consumers and those who depended on public services. We will never know whether, given enough time, statistics, and discussion, Mrs. Bumpurs might not have been able to phrase her complaint against the injustice she associated with Reagan without hallucinations or recourse to violence. Perhaps she could have been what I would call a mad critic—not necessarily insane, but lacking the resources and the ability to communicate with a public that could have made the conflict in her imagination real and therefore capable of being altered for people beyond her family.

For another example of the uneasy relationship between imagination, madness, and political criticism, consider the nineteenth-century abolitionist John Brown, who was hanged in 1859 for leading an uprising at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. He and eighteen followers (some white, some African-American) attempted to seize control of a federal arsenal in hopes of establishing a slave-free zone in the South and gradually spreading rebellion among slaves. Southern slaveholders read the uprising as evidence of an abolitionist conspiracy to invade the South, but Northern supporters (including Brown’s family members) pleaded with the Virginia governor for clemency on the ground that he was insane, as did Northern Republicans who wanted to distance themselves from Brown’s violent tactics and save the Union (McGlone 1995, 214–15). However, one must ask who was more violent and divisive: Brown (whose men had committed atrocities during the struggle to keep Kansas free) or the leaders of plantation society who employed vigilantes and civilian slave patrols to keep Africans under personal domination and no less violent economic exploitation?

During the preceding ten years, the Fugitive Slave Act (1850) and Dred Scott v. Sanford decision (1857) had deprived even free blacks of full citizenship; antimiscegenation laws discouraged whites from imagining that slaves had recognizably human emotional lives (Wallenstein 1995, 154–55). In this context, Brown’s raid aroused fear less because it achieved any of its objectives (the abolitionists were defeated in a few days) than because it demonstrated cooperation among blacks and whites. “John Brown’s Body” became an anthem for Northern soldiers who thought the goal of the Civil War was African-American freedom. But Brown’s sanity remained a point of political and historical controversy. It was in the interest of many Northerners, even some abolitionists, to regard Brown as a “fanatic” given the hopelessness of his mission and his readiness to employ violence. His family history and his noted oscillations between audacity and indecision did suggest emotional instability. Brown insisted on his sanity, of course. But so too did the governor, who wanted to make a case for Northern aggression toward the South. Scholars have also wondered whether Brown’s uprising would have seemed either so hopeless or so extreme if its aim had been liberty for a population of similarly oppressed whites (McGlone 1995, 76; Loewen 1995, 176).

John Brown actualized or made explicit a virtual state of war between American whites and between African-Americans and whites—a state of war that preexisted the formation of the United States’s revolutionary social contract. Because he claimed to have insight into the real, bodily antagonisms underlying political debate at the time, he was branded as a lunatic by adversaries and by some defenders. As with Mrs. Bumpurs, the simple physical aspects of his acts are indisputable, but what he thought he was doing in leading eighteen men against Harpers Ferry, and what he did by doing it, can only be determined by considering how his actions reinforced the actions and imaginations of other people. John McGlone suggests that historians’ focus on Brown’s sanity implies that the “insane” are incapable of making meaningful history. Yet retrospectively, we can also regard him as a mad critic, one who recognized some of the legal and bodily conditions excluding slave experience from consideration as fully human and could only communicate the violence of this experience by returning violence. Mad or not, Brown believed that he resembled African-Americans in morally significant ways and found the existence of slavery personally, indeed physically intolerable.

It is difficult to describe the kind of conflict that makes either Mrs. Bumpurs or John Brown seem or feel like mad critics—not “dogmatic,” to borrow Immanuel Kant’s jargon, but unable to convince anyone that their acts and words correspond to reality. Someone who has not been faced with regular conflict and dire uncertainty will probably consider it normal to leave an apartment peacefully when police arrive, if the rent has not been paid; it also seems normal for an individual to respond pragmatically rather than morally to injustices that go beyond his or her powers to redress. In a society with a history of racism, it seems normal for racial minorities to meet violent deaths or to live in economic circumstances so precarious that they are indistinguishable from mental illness—and mad to challenge the status quo. One reason a critical stance toward certain political phenomena feels “unreal” is that, in fact, the discourses and practices that claim to have authority over our bodies are far less unified than we fear or would like to believe. The human body exists as much in the imagination as in the flesh, and cannot be detached from the images and persons it resembles in significant ways. To understand and enjoy one’s own body requires one to borrow from discourses and practices that correspond imperfectly to one another and to each person’s unique capacities. It takes great strength to hold these discourses and practices at a distance, not to blame oneself for failing to unify them through exemplary gestures. In John Brown’s case, the discourses of Christianity, law, psychiatry, or even abolitionism seem not to have exhausted the specific nature of his goals and resistances, but he spent extraordinary energy trying to bring them into line. It also takes a receptive audience to make one’s own way of perceiving and describing the world real rather than a figment of the imagination or fleeting hallucination, like Mrs. Bumpurs’s encounter with Reagan.

Every individual must struggle to maintain as much control as possible and derive as much benefit as possible from the powers associated with his or her body—powers that, moreover, can often be actualized only if one has associates, family members, a political party, or a public to observe and draw meaning from the resulting actions. There are some people, however, whose inability to communicate is a condition for others’ communication and sanity. Bodies that fit a certain valorized style of individuality do not experience “individuality” as a defect or obstacle to communication. The supposedly universal subject of much science and philosophy is the subject whose circumstances require him or her to be least aware of his or her body; the able or healthy person is seldom brought up short by the fact of his or her embodiment (Leder 1990). By contrast, the disabled, women and members of national ethnic minorities, persons of so-called deviant sexuality, and those with limited financial resources are forced to attend to the potentially incongruous character of their own embodiment and find themselves confronted with “excessive” situations requiring more self-surveillance and interpretation than others may (Young 1990, 134; Freund and Fisher 1982, 79–95). Although most Western philosophers have taken the “normal” experience of reality and imagination as their starting point, there are philosophical and ethical advantages to beginning with the experience of fragmentation, as long as one does not minimize the suffering it can occasion.

Foucault’s histories describe how certain bodies that threatened to create social disorder for emerging European states, such as the mentally ill, the criminal, the ill, and the sexually deviant, were confined and trained to function as the common reference point for several discourses or practices, thereby contributing to the actual increase in social order and knowledge. These bodies contain or represent certain “unthinkable” or formless qualities to the majority and enable those who are sane or well to gain a better grasp on the limits of their abilities to recognize and promote sanity or health. By marking the limits of sense and experience for a certain historical community, they play a structural role very similar to the one Immanuel Kant assigned to the concept of the noumenon—that is, of provoking reflection on the fact that human knowledge is finite and concerned only with appearances. The noumenon is a “problematic” concept that structures a field of appearances without ever corresponding to an actual object. But asylums, prisons, hospitals, markets, and the bodies that inhabit them give this concept a tangible, phenomenal form. The void linking Mrs. Bumpurs to the police officers who shot her was charged with anxiety regarding the violence and irrationality members of a racist society associate, willingly or not, with poverty and minority appearance.

Kant’s claim that we can only have insight into appearances or phenomena, not things-in-themselves, has several important implications for any study of human embodiment and imagination. First, it means that even my own mind and body are accessible to me only as appearances, using concepts and perceptual patterns that are both a priori and culturally conditioned. I cannot know what my mind and body are in themselves; still less can I know the capacities or nature of other people’s minds and bodies in themselves. A second point, immediately following from the first, is that although the knowledge that I do have of my own body and the bodies of others may be scientifically accurate and technically useful, I must use imagination to connect the right concepts with relevant observations and to identify meaningful similarities between gestures, organs, and forms. While many European thinkers define the imaginary by contrast to the real, Kant explores how imagination contributes to our sense of reality and our ability to act on it.

However, Kant’s writing was also motivated by a struggle against dogmatism and fanaticism. Over time, he used the critical philosophy to defend reason against a variety of dogmatic opponents: empiricists and rationalists in the Critiques, then religious sentimentalists and culturally or historically oriented philosophers in his later works. Some scholars have suggested that Kant was even warding off his own tendencies to hypochondria or fear of mental illness. The Schwärmer (usually translated as “fanatic” or “enthusiast”) believes he has insight into the nature of things-in-themselves, whether these are pure essences, divine commands, or mere sense data. Monique David-Ménard (1990) has argued that the Schwärmer and his or her ideas play the role of problematic object limiting and thereby defining the scope of critical philosophy. By refusing to think in an “uncritical” manner, that is, by insisting on human understanding and sensibility, Kant protected himself against resemblance to thinkers whom he found domineering and unstable. He also protected his sense of moral integrity and autonomy against inclinations associated with the body.

Foucault’s work has been compared to Kant’s on several occasions, and he acknowledged a significant debt to Kant’s ideas. Most studies of Kant’s influence on Foucault address the conditions for possible experience or contrast Kantian ethics with Foucault’s ideas about power, normalization, and care of the self. This study will focus on how each thinker tacitly or explicitly develops the ideas of embodiment and imagination. Although Kant’s epistemology and ethics will play a role, I am most interested in the way Kant draws connections between imagination and feeling in his account of reflective judgment, especially aesthetic reflective judgments concerned with what is beautiful or sublime. Kant claims that the kind of feeling accompanying a judgment of beauty or sublimity does not just inform us about our own powers of thought and action, but about the extent to which those powers can be shared with others. He also distinguishes this kind of feeling from the emotions or sensations associated with the human body in biological or psychological science. In fact, “pure” feelings are cognitively significant insofar as they direct the scientist’s attention to relevant forms and events, and thus enable the biological body or psychological mind to be mapped in the first place.

I argue that the feelings and imaginative acts involved in pure aesthetic judgment give us access to an aspect of the body that precedes and exceeds empirical or introspective knowledge of the body. These feelings allow us to establish morally significant identifications and repudiations within a community, as well as to create a common way of seeing and feeling among community members to which, in one way or another, all their discourses and practices refer. Often this common way of seeing and feeling is structured through the confinement and rejection of people such as the mentally ill, the poor, the dying, the criminal, and the perverse. But the way marginalized bodies function as “problematic objects” for an ensemble of discourses and practices, excluded but constantly referenced, changes over time. Beginning in the eighteenth century, Europeans and their colonial descendents began to regard limit-phenomena such as madness or perversity as potential risks latent in their own bodies calling for self-motivated psychological control as well as external social control. This self-monitoring made it difficult for individuals to bear the idea of resembling the poor or perverse in “risky ways,” renewing ostracism and degradation against them. By returning to bodies and pleasures that are not empirical and by giving moral significance to the aesthetic dimension, Foucault attempts to undo some of the disabling and dominating ways Western societies have become accustomed to investing bodies with the potential for sense and the threat of disorder or madness.

Is it possible to escape from or rearrange the void in which one’s proximity or exposure to the problematic object becomes unbearable? Foucault uses the term “problematization” to mean taking an object in a field of discourse or social practice (like Mrs. Bumpurs’s knife or hallucination) as a symptom of conflict or ambiguity between several ways of imaginatively structuring a social field: “Problematization doesn’t mean the representation of a pre-existent object, nor the creation through discourse of an object that doesn’t exist. It’s the set of discursive or non-discursive practices that makes something enter into the play of the true and the false, and constitutes it as an object for thought (whether under the form of moral reflection, scientific knowledge, political analysis, etc)” (FL 296). Problematization is a style of thought that does not consist in producing and manipulating representations of already-existing phenomena. Rather, it is a way in which practices act on themselves, often producing new phenomena or oppositions between phenomena (Foucault 1984, 334). The goal of problematization is to create an object of thought and action about which communicable statements can be pronounced, rather than a hallucinatory idea or a situation one suffers in an unreal atmosphere. This means that sensibility and passivity (the capacity to be acted upon) may be important factors enabling one to construe a situation as more or less desirable, more or less open to change or variation. Aesthetic judgment is part of problematization because it reveals the relationship between emotional or sensory apprehension and the ability to act.

The topic of this book is embodiment and political imagination, not imagination in general. Many political observers are concerned by the fact that elections no longer seem to give most citizens the feeling of power and possibility they once conveyed. Others are alarmed by the increasing complexity of government, which makes citizens feel like clients in the hands of specialists. Such complexity can be easily manipulated by industries with media and legal expertise at their disposal, but seems beyond the power of the ordinary citizen to use for his or her ends. Although citizens in the older democracies are aware of past injustices and conflicts such as slavery, colonialism, genocides, and industrial exploitation of labor and the environment, their ability to imagine a future that is informed by and redresses some of the damage of those past conflicts seems to have dimmed. This affects the body insofar as the body suffers from war, imprisonment, medicine, more or less safe working conditions, and the relative health of children and aging parents. But it also affects the body’s ability to step back from situations in which it may feel powerless, such as a confrontation with police, and rediscover its feelings of power.

In war, but also in many forms of peacetime discipline, the body’s habits and pain reflect the invisible, imaginative expectations of community members and institutions and give them a tangible social presence they would otherwise lack (Scarry 1985). Dying, soldiers’ bodies enact a conqueror’s image of captured territory and surrender their own national imagination to the void. But people are constantly seeking reasons and new uses for the habits they already have, exercising the ability to exceed any given set of images through which others may recognize and control them while eluding violence. Consider a paradigmatic encounter between civilians, police, and the shadowy imaginative zone between them that Ryszard Kapuscinski believed was responsible for tipping the scales against the shah’s regime. In this encounter, a subtle shift in the relations between bodies imagining slightly different outcomes to their actions seemed to open the possibility of gestures that previously seemed unthinkable:

The moment that will determine the fate of the country, the Shah, and the revolution, is the moment when one policeman walks from his post toward one man on the edge of the crowd, raises his voice, and orders the man to go home. The policeman and the man on the edge of the crowd are ordinary, anonymous people, but their meeting has historic significance. . . . Until now, whenever these two men approached each other, a third figure instantly intervened between them. That third figure was fear. . . . Now that fear has retreated, this perverse, hateful union has suddenly broken up; something has been extinguished. The two men have now grown mutually indifferent, useless to each other; they can go their own ways. (Kapuzsinski, cited in _i_ek 1993, 233–34)

In this incident, the Iranian civilian unexpectedly viewed his body from a vantage point that gave it far more power than if he had seen himself through the imagination of the shah’s policemen. Indeed, only in that moment did the “third figure,” fear, appear distinct from both bodies—like the “something” haunting Mrs. Bumpurs and provoking the officers to shoot.

Those who have certain kinds of bodies tend to live, and to believe themselves bound by, the fictions created by other groups. They see these fictions as reality and, as there may be harsh emotional and physical penalties for challenging them, conceive of imagination as the act of a body already bound by this reality. They are held to these fictions by the power relations vested in their bodies—the most real thing they know. But these bodies can be mixed with others and elaborated or performed according to a variety of fictions. To play a madwoman in a certain theater piece does not mean one is insane, merely that one needs another script in which the same gestures are reasonable and sane. Individuals who wish to make a joyful vision or practice recognizably real in the eyes of others must draw other people into a shared conviction of resemblance and power through the contrast of bodily pleasure and pain. The problem is that without practice in clinging to the invisible “real” and without witnesses who will testify to the reality and power of this “real,” we are tempted to regard it as obviously “imaginary,” and our imaginative tendencies as proof that we lack the realism necessary for success.

Being able to identify the right conflicts alters the being of those who feel embattled. Shifting one’s frame of reference or playing two discourses off against each other may reveal incongruities that are as liberating as they are potentially frightening. Although the process takes time, reflection, and sometimes distraction, bodies can become attuned to longer or shorter segments of activity during which nothing seems at stake and “everything seems possible.” By “political imagination,” therefore, I do not just mean that orienting oneself in political reality requires imagination or that imagination can be exploited by states and movements, but that under certain circumstances, bodies that are neither totally governed by the imagination of others nor afraid of their own capacity to introduce disorder discover unexpected capacities for action. Making the public aware of its investment in the plurality of imaginative schemes and the scales limiting their perception and communication enables them to “think,” to “step back,” or to regard an institution from the standpoint of the problems it solves (and might solve differently). Encouraging such problematization is an important part of the artist’s or political activist’s work.

A few words are in order regarding the situation of this book. A “problematic” can mean the ensemble of discourses and practices that a given subject must negotiate at a specific moment in history. Using the phrase implies that these discourses and practices respond to a common problem or common set of problems, but this common structure can usually only be seen in retrospect. We do not, I believe, yet have the proper vantage point from which to recognize Mrs. Bumpurs’s death as emblematic of a distinct problematic involving psychiatry, economics, criminal justice, and perhaps religion that emerged in the 1980s and 1990s. During the 1990s, an immense number of articles and books in philosophy, history, and cultural studies appeared on the subject of embodiment. I suspect that scholarly interest in the relationship between embodiment, imagination, and political power was an academic response to the kinds of economic, medical, and cultural pressures that resulted in Mrs. Bumpurs’s death. In other words, scholars in these disciplines were drawn to “problematize” the body because they recognized that women’s bodies, especially the bodies of poor mothers and girls, were being shaped in often violent ways by the imaginations of others and struggling against new economic obstacles for control over that imagination.

From the 1970s through the 1990s, a series of economic and political crises changed how global governance structures, national and international, drew on bodies and imagination for their stability. The oil crisis, the deregulation of currency markets, unemployment, inflation, the threat of AIDS, and the fall of the Soviet system were some of the stars in this dark constellation. Governments adopted strategies such as the privatization of national industries, reduction in social protections, and valorization of financial and information activities (as opposed to production). These tactics were supposed to reduce the state’s interference in private economic and cultural life, and were recommended as a stimulus for development in the global South. In practice, they often expanded government activity favoring the business sector rather than educational or social services, and deliberately or unwittingly promoted the resurgence of religion. This “neoliberal” governmentality encouraged competitive behavior by giving individuals responsibility for preventing or surmounting risks like poverty, illness, and isolation—risks that a previous era had attempted to manage at the state level through social insurance—as well as fearful racism toward foreign or “subject” populations.

Neoliberalism captured the imagination of the wealthy, who stood to gain from making regions and companies compete with fewer social protections. But unfortunately it also depressed the imagination of movements who had begun to envision new forms of life during the 1960s and 1970s, by making alternatives seem “fanciful,” “extravagant,” or “irrational.” The “war on drugs” and welfare reform of the 1980s and 1990s built on existing cultural associations between chaos and poverty, madness, criminality, race, and deviant sexuality. They trained Americans in a common mode of social perception that evaluates communities and forms of individuality for their potential return on emotional or financial investment. Often, the resulting vision of indefinite free trade and everyday “entrepreneurialism” reinforced old patterns of racial and class mistrust. Theorists in the 1990s looked at the evidence of neoliberalism’s stress on bodies and hoped to identify a conflict in which they could assert a right to individuality without losing the resonance of collective belonging. In this situation, the political thinker’s goal is to be an effective critic without feeling or being received as mad—subject to intolerable anxiety, anger, or depression, capable of imagining a future on the basis of good elements in a present or past that may otherwise be rife with bitterness.

What is meant here by political imagination? First, it can refer to the way individuals empirically imagine the unity or coordination of governmental and civil institutions whose activities they only encounter erratically: the post office, the school system, the police, some protestors on the corner, as well as the smattering of events and activities reported in the news. Behind these encounters, every citizen has his or her own idea of how economic health is affected by foreign diplomatic or military action, how political parties choose their candidates, how church finances or public activities are regulated by tax laws and the First Amendment, and what particular offices or institutions are appropriate targets of activist influence. Mrs. Bumpurs’s imaginative picture of political reality was summed up in the image of Reagan “coming through her walls.”

These large-scale interactions are the subject of scholarly analysis and classes in sociology, law, and political science. However, even teachers with practical experience in addition to scholarly knowledge are guided by imagination, and something is inevitably left out of every course or presentation. Kant calls this inevitable limitation the discursivity of human understanding: reason demands that our apprehension of particular experiences or laws ultimately form a whole, but we never experience the whole as such. Our knowledge is always limited by our level of analysis or description. If we insist on believing that political reality (or even the world) “makes sense” as a whole, then some connections or details must always be “left to the imagination.”

But one can also talk about political imagination from the practical angle as a matter of what people think they can do to improve their own situation, individual or collective. Here political imagination consists in an estimation and articulation of power relations. It gives rise to questions such as Can I influence the school board? Is it possible to replace the local police captain, or at least create an ombudsman’s office to handle complaints? Can I start a new school or a public watch program to replace dysfunctional institutions? Does this or that political party have the ability to persuade the country of a certain position on health care or education? Every citizen has a rough sense, whether accurate or not, of what changes are plausible at a given time with a particular set of public concerns and abilities. In 1973, for example, many Americans believed that dependence on foreign oil for energy would soon end because rising prices had created an enormous need for inexpensive, ecological alternatives. In 1989, they believed that the fall of the Soviet Union proved the impossibility of any workable socialism, quite apart from the undesirability of that particular socialism. Every election and national crisis seems to bring out a range of imaginative options that some group is willing to gamble can become a reality and that others consider delusional. The feeling of power experienced by participants is directly related to the detail and scope of imagination, although it may not be theoretically expressed; great movements and great politicians know how to do more than they can explain.

The first section of the book examines Kant’s struggle to find unity in his own experience and reflection. It shows how Kant took the body’s boundaries as a framework for the unity of thought in his pre-critical writings, and explains why he only associated the body with sensibility and anthropology, rather than reason and reflection, later in his career. My overall goal is to show how bodies compensate for the persistence of fractures and discontinuities in Kant’s image of thought; aesthetic pleasure, in particular, blurs the boundaries between empirical and transcendental, and individual and collective, aspects of embodied experience. By contrasting individual and collective aspects of imagination in the Critique of Pure Reason and the Critique of Judgment, I show where Kantian imagination has political implications, and how these implications are structured by Kant’s avoidance of Schwärmerei or fanaticism.

The second section of the book describes Foucault’s attempt to affirm the fractured and plural image of thought revealed in certain Kantian texts. It shows how the exclusion, confinement, and normalization of bodies creates patterns of recognizable resemblance among human bodies in public and privatizes the disorder experienced by speakers and actors. Foucault regards Kant’s solutions to metaphysical dilemmas that hampered natural science and contributed to religious fanaticism as problems with which we must grapple. In The Order of Things, Foucault describes the body as the way in which the finitude of modern thought was attributed to material conditions of life, labor, and language so that historical transformation of those conditions seemed plausible (OT 314). Likewise, the body is implicit in empirical knowledge associated with the human sciences and used to administer large populations in the historical period following the Enlightenment. However, the body plays a different role and represents a different problem for each discourse and practice. Although there are sensations, affects, and actions, there is no such thing as a “body” outside the forms of thought that take their own practices as a problem and resist the defining or limiting conditions of thought. When I speak of the “body” singular, I mean the ensemble of bodies, discourses, and practices that resolve their tendency to multiply or fragment by training individual bodies to be visible or perceptible in specific ways.

The third section of the book examines how viscerally charged conflicts between imaginative frameworks affect citizens’ ability to participate in public spaces or to recognize their own agency and norm-setting ability in the forms of law, administration, and political insurgency. I use the preceding analyses to draw some conclusions regarding the recent transition from what Foucault calls a security-based art of government to neoliberalism. The security-based art of government tried to protect populations against danger and to foster biological and economic flourishing through a range of mass tactics, including collective insurance and a defensive use of racial ideology on behalf of majorities. Neoliberalism “privatizes” the risks and capacities of populations onto individuals, encouraging them to take charge of their own exposure to risk or opportunity in relative isolation or independence.

Neoliberalism exploits the body’s potential in new ways by transforming every aspect of private life, such as education, marriage, childbearing, and sports, into a potentially profitable or competitive investment. The anxiety caused by participation in so many potentially unrelated “markets” in which one has little opportunity to evaluate or refuse competition makes it difficult and even dangerous to imagine collective transformations. Every effort to problematize or vary existing ways of life and institutions requires one to restrict imagination along certain lines—in short, not “think too far ahead,” “too globally,” or “too locally.” But there is a great difference between restricting one’s own imagination or agreeing to do so as a group for the sake of focus and coherence, and being restricted by others in such a way that one is confronted by incoherence. One can deliberately focus a lens to look at a slide or adopt a single angle of analysis for a course syllabus. But if the lens is focused by someone with different interests or quality of vision, the slide may not make any sense at all, and if a class is too detailed or too general, the student comes away unsure what she has learned or if she learned anything. What is important is that each individual balances imagination and knowledge in a different way to produce the feeling of sense and power, and yet these feelings must communicate or have a collective dimension if sense and power are to be believable, that is to say, “real.”

I do not claim to have discovered the problematic governing neoliberalism, nor do I proffer specific recommendations for action. Rather, I explore the aspects of embodiment and imagination that could allow us to make political sense of Mrs. Bumpurs’s mad criticism. This book also represents an attempt to do justice to the craziness that many citizens of modern democracies (much less the authoritarian regimes) feel when confronted with the contemporary breakdown in institutions of public security—although Foucault reminds us that these institutions were complicit with colonialism and racism during the nineteenth and most of the twentieth centuries. I hope that it remains true to the critical side of Kant’s project—affirming the finitude of human understanding even to the extent of rooting egalitarianism in our inability to say who we resemble, rather than in a positive humanism. Citizens in Western societies will better understand the potentials or crisis of their own political imagination if they regard themselves as potentially sharing the “postcolonial” burden of incongruity between historical practices and discursive or visual codes with citizens elsewhere on the planet. Conceiving the body as a “problematic object” enables us to reflect on its function in stabilizing the multiple imaginative schemes through which others act on us and we act on ourselves. The goal is to establish a new ethical relationship to norms, one less vulnerable to hostility and conquest in the name of health and security.

Heterotopic Interval

While most philosophers and psychologists tend to think of imagination as a capacity of individual persons or of the individual “subject” of common experience, anthropologists, feminists, and postcolonial theorists frequently refer to imagination as a collective and historical phenomenon that determines who will be recognized as “man” or “human.” Each set of discourses borrows certain assumptions from the others; philosophers assume that the anthropologist knows how imaginative subjects are rooted in material communities; anthropologists assume that philosophers or psychologists have demarcated imagination from other cognitive functions. The idea of heterotopia is one that can fruitfully be used to describe how intellectual disciplines and cultural practices overlap or borrow from one another selectively and at points of crucial ambiguity. One of my goals in this book is to make that collective meaning of imagination more concrete for philosophers by showing how the two senses overlap in Kant’s work.

In Western philosophy, imagination has been regarded either as a lack or unreal variation on the real by some thinkers, and as an integral part of reality by others. One tradition, extending from Aristotle and Aquinas to Edmund Husserl and Jean-Paul Sartre, regards imagination as fantasia, the ability to produce images of nonexistent entities supplementing or negating reality. The other tradition, to which many of early modern philosophers belong (along with some twentieth-century thinkers like Henri Bergson and Walter Benjamin), regards all mental events as “images” or “ideas.” For these philosophers, imagination refers not only to voluntary fictions but also to a confused or indistinct apprehension of reality. Kant acknowledges both alternatives, but he also gives imagination a role in constituting the real as real. We imagine because we are incapable of grasping things-in-themselves from all sides and aspects at any given moment. Far from being a defect, Kant made the inability to grasp things-in-themselves into the touchstone of humanly verifiable morality and science, rather than allowing human experience to be disqualified as “unreal,” “mere fantasy,” or confusion by contrast to divine comprehension. In this way, he created a neutral phenomenological zone from which the multiplicity of spaces and the threat of madness could be excluded.

In the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant describes transcendental imagination as a faculty enabling individuals to find a rule or concept for every intuition. We use imagination whenever we organize a manifold of intuited phenomena according to the basic concepts structuring experience as a temporally unified, causally interconnected, and stable “world” in which we occupy a determinate space. If the imagination were unable to organize all perceptions into a stable order corresponding to possible moments of logical judgment about objects, we would be subject to a rhapsody of mental and physical events unworthy of being called experience. Language names the products of this ontological synthesis and enables us to fix the elements of that reality. But by resembling and drawing attention to resemblances within the real, language also treats “man” the speaker in much the same way as the objects of his experience. The schematism of (human) imagination, after all, has criteria for recognizing “man” when it sees examples. Here imagination is part of the reality it helps organize.

But these acts of imagination are usually associated with individual bodies, while language is assumed to be an intrinsically collective phenomenon. Students of art history and material culture have tried in varying ways to show that rituals and artifacts train users in common perceptual and creative habits, just as language is both collective and subject to individual variation or invention. Myths, works of art, and dance direct people’s bodily action, including their attention to resemblances, by reference to something invisible that is present in the visible, auditory, or tangible dimension. Many people in situations of relative privilege believe that their experience is unified by orientation toward the invisible, as Kantian reason is unified by the regulative employment of Ideas. This ideally unified experience, toward which individual ethnicities and knowledges should eventually contribute, was further supported by the idea of the nation and the stupendously productive subject of modern science.

In Imagined Communities (1983), Benedict Anderson describes the development of specifically modern forms of “belonging” and “exclusion” in the context of South American national revolutions. The imagined community of the nation was added to older ways of situating oneself psychically in relation to an indefinite plurality of others, such as lineage or religious community. Public spaces, so important for the tradition of deliberative democratic thought from Kant to the Frankfurt school, exist “only by virtue of imagination”—specifically, the imagination of being seen or read by strangers (Warner 2002, 8–9, 74–76). These imaginative locations organize and orient the subject in a geographical landscape claimed by warring parties. More recently, Arjun Appadurai has distinguished between multiple “scapes” of contemporary migrant consciousness, such as “ethnoscapes,” “technoscapes,” “financescapes,” “mediascapes,” and “ideoscapes,” of which the Enlightenment/liberal worldview is one of the most powerful (1996, 31–36). As a result of international migration and rapid expansion in communication media, more and more citizens are aware of the extent to which their everyday lives are shaped by the imagination of others and know that not all forms of imagination involve the same attention span or point of historical reference.

However, political regimes and oppositional movements also enhance their legitimacy by emphasizing the plurality of imaginative and invisible spaces available to them in a cultural situation. Corrupt postcolonial states, according to Achille Mbembe, use rituals and symbols from different discourses and traditional practices to suggest their absolute domination over everyday life—exaggerating the dissonances within citizens’ experience and claiming surplus power from their ability to manipulate several symbolic domains (2001, 109–15). For example, they enhance the obvious military or financial activities of government with Christian or indigenous religious symbols—representatives of the “invisible” (see also Tonda 2002, 27–28). The Mothers of the Disappeared mobilized popular awareness of invisible detainees in Argentina’s political prisons by placing their own bodies, powerfully associated with maternal and religious authority in the Catholic nationalist imagination, in the public sphere as visible proxies or “doubles” for their missing children and grandchildren (Cornell 1998, 103–4; Taussig 1992, 27–28, 48–50).

Imaginative spaces and discourses such as religion, family life, the educational system, political ceremony, and warfare emanate from many points within the social body. Law, Catholic doctrine, and psychiatry do not speak about sexuality or allow their practitioners to imagine sexuality in the same way. But most citizens are required to interact within or in terms of several spaces, a practice Maria Lugones calls “world”-traveling (2003). In truth, there is no reason to talk about these spaces except insofar as they coexist in the actions or appearance of individual bodies. Daily encounters with police, teachers, factory bosses, or healers allow these spaces to affect one another by affecting the bodies in which they coexist. The law “learns” about psychiatry or the church when a parishioner brings a lawsuit against a priest or a therapist testifies before Congress about the effects of rehabilitation on domestic batterers.

To describe the intimate relation between ordered thought and spatial order, Foucault considers the contrasting case of a heterotopia, or juxtaposition of several “emplacements that are irreducible to each other and absolutely nonsuperposable” (AME 178). This juxtaposition contrasts with a utopia, whose imaginary order is presented in a realistic manner (OT xviii). Foucault’s most famous example of heterotopia was the string of letters linking entries in Argentinian novelist Jorge-Luis Borges’s fictional Chinese encyclopedia, supposedly contemporaneous with the Encyclopédie of the French Enlightenment and the artificial language project of John Wilkins, member of the English Royal Society (Borges 1964). Borges’s encyclopedia attempts to do without a common imaginative locus for its categories. As Foucault muses, where could these animals “(i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush”—“ever meet, except in the immaterial sound of the voice pronouncing their enumeration, or on the page transcribing it?” (OT xvi).

But Foucault also allows that in certain cases these “emplacements” can be brought together in a “real space” that allow some spaces to represent, contest, or reverse the others. Foucault had already experimented with this kind of heterotopia in History of Madness, where he describes Bosch’s Ship of Fools as a bit of space neither in the “sane” world of commerce, government, and religion, nor in the wholly “other” world of death or the void. In his 1967 lecture “Of Other Spaces,” he distinguishes between heterotopias of “crisis” such as initiations, travel, and religious experience from heterotopias of “deviance” such as asylums and prisons (AME 189–90). Theaters, gardens, hotel rooms, hospitals, and libraries are concrete sites where individuals simultaneously (and often only temporarily) participate in several distinct systems of social or intellectual order. Other scholars have suggested the Palais Royal of ancien régime Paris, in which aristocracy, revolutionaries, and the demimonde shared a common meeting ground; the Masonic lodge, an experimental zone in which social order based on class affiliation was subordinated to the secret increase of Enlightenment as well as the creation of an intellectual elite; and the early English factory, in which elements of handcraft economy were interwoven with the increasingly detailed forms of order characterizing industrial management (Hetherington 1997).

One reason for this structure’s persistence in Foucault’s corpus may be that it reflects a certain experience of his own childhood: as he stated in an interview, “We did not know when I was ten or eleven years old whether we would become German or remain French. When I was sixteen or seventeen, I knew only one thing: school life was an environment protected from exterior menaces, from politics” (EST 125). In other words, he did not know which imagined community or order of religion, commerce, and the state would ultimately appeal to his body for self-evidence and “reality.” Structurally, the school has the same function as the ship, the brothel, and the letters separating categories in Borges’s encyclopedia—it hovers between incompatible schemes of order but is also a potential seed crystal of order in its own right. For this reason, I use “heterotopia” to refer to the collection of more-or-less real imaginative schemes lacking a site that could give them a common time and place, rather than the encyclopedia, ship, or school itself, that is, the “single real place.” In certain “magical” spaces such as the words of the encyclopedia or the space of a ship or classroom, these schemes can coincide, if only because the space excludes them all in a common way.

Foucault associates Borges’s bizarre encyclopedia with the European surrealists, citing Lautréamont’s toast to the beauty of a “chance encounter between a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table” in order to point out the important role played by the table in our ability to cognize, much less to judge aesthetically. But Borges’s work, which is sometimes regarded as a bridge between Surrealism and the Latin American literary movement known as “magic realism,” also reflects the phenomenal experience of life in a non-metropolitan country. In the works of authors like Cortazar, Donoso, García Márquez, and Allende, mythical and fantastic events are described in the same tone reserved for realistic ones, and the most serious historical crises are presented in the manner of fables.

The phrase “magic realism,” which is also applied to non–Latin American authors such as Salman Rushdie, Ben Okri, and Leslie Marmon Silko, suggests that the “magic” is merely an aesthetic addition to realism, on which the West is already expert. But many of these authors are attempting to convey the sense of “qualified” reality or disbelief with which citizens in totalitarian or rapidly modernizing states are required to confront cultural products from different periods and metaphysical or moral contexts. Feminist theorists, anthropologists, and scholars in cultural studies have had to borrow an understanding of imagination that is more like a heterotopia than it is a simple variation or constitution of the “real” in order to write about worlds in which disparate religions, military forces, and points of historical reference such as tribal custom or globalization overlap.

Heterotopias are also places of heterochrony (AME 182–83; DE 3:581). In other words, they alert participants to the fact that even at moments of apparent continuity, their attention is claimed by a plurality of temporalities and levels of historical analysis. Foucault refers to the cemetery as a site where the eternal and the everyday are brought into jarring contiguity; Kevin Hetherington’s example of the English factory likewise emphasizes the uneasy coexistence workers experienced between the speed of economic practices inherited from the era of home work and manufacture and new speeds imposed by machinery. Regimes could not use religion or ethnic history to capture their citizens’ imaginations so effectively if architectural and geographical entities (such as state, church, school, hospital or healer, workplace, global Northwest or South) were not associated with spans of time and ways of living that convey the flavor of that time, such as the indigenous past, colonial past, postcolonial present, nationalist future, or global capitalist future. This means that one can perceive the juxtaposition of multiple spaces in an event just as in a space like the brothel or ship. By provoking a feeling of discontinuity between forms of corporeal and intellectual order, heterotopias inspire a type of historical reflection in which the human environment is dissociated rather than unified.

In many cases, the modern state takes responsibility for providing a unifying historical and spatial framework for the diverse spaces and schemes of disciplines, religions, and economic production of exchange. It may also participate in the active dis-integration or uneven development of social spaces and temporal rhythms using modern communication technologies and investment or consumption strategies (Harvey 2000, 122–30; Lefebvre 1991, 50–53). But the human body also plays the role of the “ship,” “prison,” or encyclopedia index in everyday life. It may seem bizarre to think of the body’s unity as the space from which conflicting imaginary frames have been purged or brought into a temporary coexistence, but this is not surprising from a psychoanalytic point of view. Those who visit psychiatrists often suffer from being made to inhabit several powerful views of the world at the same time or to take sides with loved ones who have grown up feeling severely embattled (Davoine and Gaudillière 2004). The body can also function as an event, a site for events, or a part of some larger event because of its capacity for acting and being acted upon. There are places where the “body” opens out onto the past or onto imagination and cannot be closed or individuated. These can be sites of trauma, intense pleasure, or spiritual insight.

If Borges’s encyclopedia abandons the site which is a necessary condition for scientific knowledge, it does reveal symptoms that are necessary conditions for knowing about imagination in its plurality. Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1962) gave the body a capital role in unifying phenomenological experience. According to Foucault, the body plays just as important a role in uncovering the competition and conflict between temporalities and practices that have shaped our understanding of history. The body is the most important artifact in which past and present struggles can be read, but through which these struggles can also be foreclosed. “The body manifests the stigmata of past experience and also gives rise to desires, failings, and errors. These elements may join in a body where they achieve a sudden expression, but just as often, their encounter is an engagement in which they efface each other, and pursue their insurmountable conflict” (AME 375). Bodies in the plural, in their differentiations as well as their similarities, exhibit the contradictions and failings of the discourses and practices that govern them, feed them, educate them, cure them, or send them to war.

Premodern techniques of governance applied themselves to the body, but largely in order to alter or intimidate a soul whose desirable qualities and longevity were intensely bound up with religious anticipations of a non-bodily existence. By contrast, the modern body is the medium through which thought takes itself as an imaginative object and the instrument by which thought resists being objectified. The idea of the soul might even be the way we think of this struggle between materially effective but imaginative elements of the body. The “body” that is an imaginative construct of political significance, and to which every living, speaking, affective body must orient itself in order to survive, is the one whose very artificiality provides a common ground for the generation of comparative data concerning real bodies, data which has been used to enslave individuals as much as to liberate or cure them. In being a medical problem, a sexual problem, a disciplinary and economic problem, and perhaps, today, even an ecological problem, the “body” enables modern societies to generate knowledge about those fields of natural functioning and interaction in a more easily communicable and rationally justifiable way than is available to societies oriented chiefly toward transcendent or otherworldly truth.

But this knowledge often conceals the emotional and political damage of conflicts, such as Mrs. Bumpurs’s struggle with Reagan, that are neither “true” nor “false” in any strict sense because they refer to points of life-threatening ambiguity in a society’s relations of power. Citizens of authoritarian regimes (or very troubled families) know not to speak publicly about experiences or rumors that would disrupt the functioning of other conversations and security networks on which they depend. Lawyers who cite psychiatrists (or the reverse) know that there are terms or experiences referenced by the “other discipline” that would require a lifetime of scholarship and practice to translate effectively, for no translation exists for every ramification of concepts like “custom” or “paranoia.” Every individual body has a different level of tolerance for nonsense of this type. But every individual body benefits from the effect of “sense.” Thus the heterotopic imagination cannot be a regulative Idea in the same way as the “world” or “totality,” for it cannot be the same for all citizens, although all citizens contribute to and are affected by it.

Some people, like Mrs. Bumpurs, find the heterotopic imagination too close for comfort and hallucinate or suffer on its basis. Others are able to step back once they realize that there is no point in demanding that people, parties, and institutions agree in every respect on the world they share. In this book, I assume that more of the world’s citizens, even in the older democracies, live with heterotopia than live with the coherent experience described as universal by philosophers and Western psychologists. Ironically, the heterotopic imagination is the norm. As I will argue in “Negative Anthropology,” however, what is “normal” in a statistical sense may also be profoundly pathological for certain bodies. Political imagination should create conditions under which each citizen, movement, or nation can experiment with and set its own norms, without damaging similar prospects for others.

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