So much to say, so much to say… A Reply

I want to begin by thanking Karen, Anthony, Kirsten and Elke for their comments on the book–and a special thanks to Elke for organising. It is a rare treat to have so much attention paid to one’s work, especially by such thoughtful and insightful colleagues. My profound thanks to you all. I also need to offer some explanations for my much delayed post – first I was starting a new job and time ran out, then I was ill, and then my iCloud account somehow ate my draft. So, I’ve had to start from scratch, which has forced me to be direct and straightforward to save time. Any curtness of tone is a reflection of circumstances rather than my appreciation of my critics.

I learned a great deal from all the posts—about the gaps, limitations and possibilities of my book. Therefore, in my response I want to reflect upon what I have learned through this forum. What I have to say here is only a brief continuation of the collective intellectual journey taken through this forum. You have all given me much to think about it the future.

1. Desire

From Karen I learned that the language of desire is much more central to the book than I realised. I was aware that desire was woven into my rhetoric but I had not taken the measure of what I missed by not addressing desire and its place in my argument directly. It turns out there is a great deal that is added by making desire a focus.

In her post, Karen rightly notes that to alter our object of desire, to stop wanting ethical certainty, we need to account for why we desire that certainty. I’m aware of this and part of my own intellectual journey in writing this book was confronting this desire in myself. Yet, once that internal work was done, I moved on to trying to articulate why we should desire a different kind of ethics. Thankfully, Karen is a more sympathetic writer in this regard, as she recognised that making this shift explicit is vital to the intellectual work I am engaged in. Thank you for this insight!

Karen’s use of Berlant’s work is spot on, I think, and I like the account of desire Berlant offers, seeing it as a “cluster of promises we want someone or something to make to us and make possible for us.” This account, in turn, highlights the importance of diagnosing why the desire for ethical certainty persists despite its inability to deliver on those promises—we must understand the seductive quality of this cruel optimism in order to correct it.


“Detaching ourselves from an object like ethical certainty in the context of human rights conflicts requires, then, that we fundamentally alter our sense of self, our relationship to others, and our understanding of our place in the world.”

I completely agree!

“This will be radically destabilizing and likely demoralizing. It will require us to rethink our identities, reconstitute our communities, reimagine who does what and when in the world, and reconceive “the good life.” And this will entail risk and loss while requiring significant amounts of imagination and patience, courage and energy. Changing our object of desire, as Berlant’s work reminds us, is so difficult and fraught a task that many are dissuaded from ever undertaking it, choosing the harm done by the existing object of desire rather than going through the wrenching pain of recreation. It is not surprising, then, that the desire for ethical certainty remains so strong.”

This is vital stuff here! I only want to add one thought. It may be that it is actually the tension of living with Cruel Optimism that is painful and difficult, as much as it is the work of altering our desire. As we hold on to failed promises, it seems that the act of wanting anything else will only court further feelings of loss and disappointment. This anxiety is as destabilising and demoralising as actually moving on, desiring anew, seeking out new promises.

I also very much appreciate the language of interfering with the feedback loop of bad desire, rather than requiring a kind of heroic effort to overcome our desire for ethical certainty (which hints at Nietzschean themes of a re-evaluation of all values) or simply replacing one set of promises with another (implicit in left discussion of counter hegemony, I think). I fully agree that the work to be done is that of building skills—I have tended to use a language of civic virtues that I think is perhaps too beholden to agonistic themes, as Karen highlights. Now I’m drawn back to a Deweyan language of shaping habits, altering conduct and remaking institutions through democratic and educative practices. And this means not forgetting about the work involved!

I agree with Karen when she says:

“We need to know not only that we are going to be engaged in decision-making that has remainders and is never acceptable to all, but also that this is going to involve us in ongoing, at times tedious, often coalitional, usually multi-pronged efforts to achieve political change. And we need to be prepared that the struggle here is not just with others or taking place in the public realm alone. The struggle is also an internal, deeply personal one that occurs at the level of our psyche, our subjectivity.”

Yes! In both politics and philosophy I think we have to love people more than we love ideals, as this is a kind of inoculation against the desire for certainty, for escape from the mess of the human world. This leads to a another thought I want to add: even as we acknowledge the work to be done, it is also vital to keep the achievements and joys of this work in view, to celebrate each victory for its own value. The measure of our acts is not some distant ideal at the horizon but what it does for our lived experience. The work we are doing is not in service of a distant moment of resolution but in service to a better present.

And this is why I want to emphasise that is not only a matter of altering what we desire and understanding why we desire bad promises, but also a question of thinking about how we desire. Shifts in our desires can be less traumatic if we see the persistence of uncertainty not as meaning that we must learn to live with disappointment, but that the human condition is fundamentally a creative one that requires an understanding of ethics and politics that can celebrate this feature of our experience.

There is so much more to be said…

2. Outlaw Sensibilities

This stood out to me in Anthony’s lovely post:

“It is an odd sensation to go from being damned to hell, one moment, and held up in the next as an international trophy of human rights achievement. The queer must then be forgiven for developing quite a different take on what it might mean to become a normal bearer of human rights. And for queers with theoretical inclinations, such a dramatic turnaround in fortunes begs a great many questions.”

Our theories of human rights cannot render people as objects—markers of human exclusion in one moment and then trophies of “our” progress in the next. Anthony is entirely too polite to say that this sensation is “odd”. It may well be that but it is so much worse still. To the extent that Anthony finds my attempt to rethink human rights a resource for queer activists interested in human rights, I am deeply gratified. This is the best thing the book can accomplish.


But what I’ve learned from Anthony is that the insights we can find by starting with the rights activism of those who are excluded and devalued depend upon a particular situated perspective, what he calls an outlaw sensibility. I think this is extremely important.

Outlaw sensibilities are rooted in an alternative social space, and often alternative communities. I found as much in my work on housing rights in the US, though Anthony’s articulation of this is much clearer and finer than anything I managed. These contexts are vital for enabling and supporting the work of changing social norms and improving political structures. When I was looking at housing rights in the US, I was struck by the resources that communities of colour had, both for reconstructing human rights and engaging in radical political action. Articulating their own account of themselves as human and making their own demands for justice requires individual skill and bravery, as well as collective support for this work of desiring differently, which exists in these alternative social spaces, encouraging an outlaw sensibility.

In contrast the plight of working class, and even precariously middle-class, whites struggling with housing problems was individualised, fragmented and, by reports from those engaged in organising efforts, many people were immobilised by feelings of guilt and personal failure despite the clear evidence of there being a larger social problem at work. But when one can see oneself from a perspective of privilege, even when that privilege is more illusory than material, it is difficult to see the need for change in our desires and practices, to develop outlaw sensibilities, to seek out others to remake the world with and to allow oneself to be remade.

Anthony’s comments bring this to light for me, suggesting the depth of the paradox that those with material and structural advantages are the most immobilised in the struggle against injustice by their commitment to conventional desires, their desire to be conventional. This brings out the difficulty and importance of solidarity across difference when we are concerned with social transformation. It also brings me back to an issue from the book, of how to combat gentrification/displacement in areas that are already and aways changing. ONE DC in Washington DC have wrestled with this issue: how can you organise long-time residents in conjunction with new residents? Especially across lines of race, class and gender? Even though both old and new residents have an interest in stopping the process of neoliberal urban development that will eventually see both communities lose their homes, it is difficult to get young creative professionals struggling with rising rents and precarious employment to see themselves as potential collaborators with communities suffering from longer and deeper forms of deprivation. I haven’t thought it through but there’s something important here in thinking in terms of enabling outlaw sensibilities, encouraging a disconnection from convention among those with partial-privileges.

Here I think the queer rejection of nostalgia that Anthony highlights is also vital. What gives the challenge of working across difference an air of impossibility is that we all too easily presume that we are starting from some antecedent ideal moment. Yet this was never the case! Deprived communities of colour in US cities don’t want go back to conditions of ghettoisation, they don’t simply want to see all new residents leave, but rather they want to alter the conditions in which these new forces, resources and people shape the common neighbourhood space—and many new residents in gentrifying areas want the same thing! There are still big problems here. For example, solidarity requires rethinking our privilege, like young, white, “educated”, heterosexual, male, creative professionals learning to share and even cede the space and power they’re accustomed to enjoying. Nonetheless, I think this is an important element of how we should think about solidarity.

I think an anti-nostalgia politics has the potential to change our understanding of what solidarity and social change means. There’s not one place where we all want to go, no one thing that we all want (or want it the same way); so, the question is how a diverse collective can pursue justice here and now? Again, there’s so much more to say…

3. “Show Me Your War Face!”

Kirsten’s response to the book takes aim at the gap between philosophical reflection and political action. And in so doing most directly challenges my argument, suggesting that I have failed to account for how much change is necessary to realise the kind of democratic human rights ethos defended in the book.

She suggests that

“To be able to articulate claims within a political order, each person would need to be afforded, at the very least, reasonable welfare (including freedom from the politically disabling aspects of war), some decent standard of education, guarantees of free speech and expression, and the freedom to participate in public political life without fear of persecution.”

I’m unsure of the necessity of this claim. In the book, I’ve defended an ethos that aims to increase the voice that each person has in their social life. As an ethical claim this suggests that arrangements that work towards this are preferable to those that do not, it provides a standard for judgment in cases where action and decisions are needed. I have not offered a standard that social or political institutions must meet to be legitimate, so while I agree the goods on Kirsten’s lists may encourage more democratic political and social arrangements, I do not see them as prerequisites to being able to make claims. In fact, it is often the making of claims that leads to securing these goods. Further, I am uncomfortable with language that suggests these are goods given, presumably by institutionalised authorities.


The ethos and politics I favour focuses less on meeting codified standards of welfare, education, speech, etc, and more on how the social institutions through which we make our lives can be democratised, including workplaces, schools, churches, legal systems, museums, etc. Wherever social power operates, a democratising ethos would challenge us to to think about the space, voice and power that individuals have and how a wider culture of democracy feeds into and is enabled by our political institutions. There’s no perfect arrangement, no end goal or final principle that guides this work, only a commitment to trying to make our relationships more cooperative and empowering, more equal and more free.

But this perhaps makes Kirsten’s criticism more powerful. How can we make these changes with a politics that refuses to engage in coercive action? And here she shares ground with many critics of Dewey and Pragmatism more broadly.

Kirsten argues that by undermining the certainty of ethical claims, I also undermine the justification for coercive political action, leaving us with nothing but discourse to achieve the profound social change I suggest is necessary. Her line of reasoning proceeds as follows:

“1) radical change requires action beyond words, in particular in the form of coercion of one form or another but …

2) the only acceptable form of practice of a human rights ethos if we follow Hoover’s argument is non-coercive unless …

3) we accept some form of contingent ethical fixity in terms of belief, consensus or law.”

My short response is that we won’t achieve radical and far reaching political change, and thereby begin to alter our social conditions, without coercion. In essence, I reject the validity of premise 2 in the syllogism. But I don’t want to satisfy myself by simply saying I disagree with Ainley’s reading of my argument. I want to take seriously the possibility that I have backed myself into a corner on the issue of political action, coercion and violence.

To begin, my concern with the violence of rights is not a concern to eliminate coercion from political life, but rather to bring to the fore the violence we accept, elide or simply ignore, especially when powerful actors mobilise ethical ideals to justify the use of social power to coerce individuals and groups. In some sense this focus is an artefact of the time and place in which this work started (post Iraq invasion, as noted in preface). My focus on the violence of universal rights claims would look different if I started today, as the scepticism of dominant social and political institutions promoting rights is greater and the forms of resistance to (and through) rights more developed—for example, the work on housing I consider throughout the book, as well as the movements for queer rights that Anthony highlights.

This concern is not intended to suggest that coercion (or even violence) might not have a place in political action in purest of ethical ends. I am not committed to non-violence at all costs and in all instances. Also, I fully acknowledge the coercion that has been used in so many rights revolutions and advances. Political change involves recognising and building political power, which is then exercised socially in order to change the way we think and act, hopefully resulting in changes to institutions. The key question for me is the quality of our exercise of power. There are better and worse coercive actions!

Also, I wouldn’t want to say that democratic norms require non-coercive means only, especially without a finer parsing out of coercion, power/force and violence. Politics is always coercive and I wholly accept that where the result of formalised politics regularly harms particular populations (black individuals and communities in the US, for example) then there is an urgent need for forceful action that works outside the given social and institutionalised norms. However, whether or not that requires violence against property or other individuals is a further question.

But does my willingness to embrace coercive political action undermine my stated commitment to a contingent ethics? Kirsten suggests that it does.

“However, as the ways of fighting for rights (or any form of ethical or political goods) become more disruptive to the lives of others, they get less and less justifiable from a position that takes seriously its own contingency and claims to respect the ways others live and the values they express.”

I disagree, as it’s not disruption as such that would make action less justifiable but disruption that is more coercive, more violent and more oppressive and exclusive in its use that becomes less justifiable. Mind, I’m saying less justifiable and not unjustifiable! Force or power that is tyrannical rather democratic is the key, is there scope for response to our coercive acts, for communication, contestation, contingency. There’s a difference between the disruption caused by police raiding a family home to carry out in an eviction, in which people and objects are literally thrown on to the street, versus the disruption caused by breaking back into that home, returning the family to their home and preventing further evictions by putting bodies between family and police. Both of these acts are disruptive, forceful, and coercive. Both actions have the potential to bring about physical violence but the eviction closes off communication, political action and ethical feeling because it simply demands obedience, while the other action leaves open the possibility for change that is not simply the breaking of another will to power’s demands. A more democratic coercion is one in which the coercive force that demands respect and recognition does so while offering the possibility of ongoing political relationships.

So, I don’t see that taking ethical contingency and agonistic respect seriously limits our willingness to be disruptive—it actually may well encourage it. I do, however, welcome contingency’s tendency to hold us back from the righteous feelings that easily justify violence, not because violence can never be justified but because it is all too easily justified by appeals to universal ethics, to our certainty in what we believe. I do not want to eliminate the possibility of coercion, force and even violence from political life, but I do support an ethos that refuses to relieve the anxiety of deploying violence. It should never be easy and guilt free to coerce through violent means, as such means eliminate the capacity for communication, understanding and change. Violence irrevocably  damages social relations, human bodies, and the objects through which we make our lives. Violence always has a cost. I think it should sit at the limit of political action and that our ethical thinking should recognise and take the measure of this before we resort to violence.

My position is that there are no justifications that are beyond dispute. This doesn’t mean that we never act but the work of justifying our actions is never done, which is why violence is so problematic.

What justifies our actions? Kirsten and I share a concern on this matter, though our responses differ. I can’t see that our actions are ever justified by anything other than our belief. But belief is not simply the things that I happen to believe. Beliefs are deeply social and they can be better or worse. In the book I adopt a language of value and judgment—coercive action is “justified” by the values it seeks to uphold and our judgment that those values are worthy of such action.

If we want any more certainty than that we will never leave our ethical adolescence. There are no final juries, no supreme beings, no force of rationality that can put nagging doubts to bed for good. The ethical question never goes away: “is it the right thing to do? Am I a good person? Is it justifiable to do X instead of Y? Should everyone do X instead of Y, under force of coercion?”

It’s wrong to think that I have no time for consensus or its institutionalised cousin, law. I do, but not as sources of further and more certain justification of our actions. Consensus too easily rests on the acceptance of convention. And law is rigid and slow moving at the same time that it formal, specific and authoritative (as Kirsten identified), though I think its publicness and certainly its legitimacy have to be questioned when we consider how law is actually made and how it is developed and changed. It doesn’t seem to me that to say “it was legal” or “it was what the law demanded” is a better justification in ethical terms, though it might well be politically and instrumentally

Consensus and law are slow moving and carry histories with them, which has value because we do need rules, regularity, the everyday coercive force of socialisation to get by in life. But when it comes to the question of political action, of being disruptive, of building and exercising force for change, I do worry that it rather too slow and too unimaginative, too beholden to the powerful interests that write and mobilise the law. Belief as value judgment is vital, as it looks to the situation at hand and demands some change. I do, however, defend the idea that some value judgments are better than others… still so much more to say!

4. How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Contingency

Elke both agrees with me and worries about the consequence of such an affirmation of the contingent and the plural.

“By rejecting the universal, refusing any one privileged authority, or abandoning specific, delineated definitions of concepts like humanity, we indeed open up a radical space for negotiating plurality and contingency. But thinking this space, let alone living in it, is no easy task. When paired with a vision of time that will neither end nor settle – a perpetual flux if you will – the order is taller still.”

Like any act of love, embracing contingency and plurality should be scary. All acts of commitment involve risk with no guarantee of reward. Nonetheless, Elke’s contribution reminds me that this is a monumental task, as it involves rethinking the world at a fundamental level. And raises the question, are we up to the task? Can one be a positive and optimistic deep pluralist? If so, how do we equip ourselves for the radical plurality of an unfinished world?


On one level, the solution is simple but difficult. We must rework our expectations—our desires—and much of what I have to say on this (for now) is said in response to Karen’s post. Yet, as Elke rightly reminds me, the task is more difficult still, as there are serious conceptual issues involved.

“But if existing delineations of political communities are challenged, and a re-construction process is to begin, in multiple and contested ways, how can radical plural experiences, potentially transient contestations, and multiple versions, or interpretations, be inscribed, or transposed, into specific political communities? How are political communities delineated without not always doing violence to some aspects of the multiple?”

This concern is related to Kirsten’s as well—so, I’ll reiterate, I do not believe there is any escape from the possibility of doing violence to others, to particularity, to the multitude. Yet, I do not think that this violence is always unavoidable, nor when it is unavoidable, do I think all coercion and violence is equal. This is why the agonistic insistence on the constant re-opening of contests over meaning, belonging, truth, goodness, etc., are absolutely vital. We always risk hurting each other, the challenge is how to mediate this harm, to preserve space for communication. But I begin to repeat myself.

And a further challenge remains. Am i advocating a love that cannot but disappoint, break our hearts and leave us wanting?

Elke asks,

“What, in such a fluid political community, may remain in flux, and what ought to be affixed for the benefit of identifying a political community? If politics is always a politics of becoming, and we can never be sure of what it is that will become, how are we to brace for radical uncertainty at every corner? Hoover touches on this somewhat throughout the book, but I am interested in pressing this further in his account, particularly in relation to his aim to reconstruct human rights rather than simply reconceptualise them.”

There is a difference between the leaving open of the agon, of making space for further contestation, and the demand that all be in flux now, that everything is up for grabs all the time. Deep pluralism is not always a radical plurality, even as such radical and profound uncertainty is the fear that haunts my injunction to affirm and desire deep pluralism. We cannot question everything at once and as we realise this we come to trust that the world will support us, that habit, custom, all our dead rights and conventional desires will do—for now, just enough (until they won’t!). This trust is real trust, we have to affirm it and there are no guarantees. But practically speaking this means the work of reconstruction can be managed—in fact, it may be that it must be managed if we are to remain sane.

But Elke wants to push even further by questioning whether the communication that I advocate and try to enable is even possible, can we translate across difference in a way sufficient to enable the kind of contingent universalism that I think human rights, at their best, equip us to fight for?

This is an important question that I do not have a complete answer to, but I can begin by saying that I prefer a language of communication over translation (including its echoing of communion). For me there’s translation going on in many cases, but it suggests too much certainty of meaning between the two sides we presume in need of translation. Communication can be difficult between two speakers of the same language, even members of the same cultural group (within the same family). This is not to deny the issues of translation in political life are created when we address issues of political and racial and gendered hierarchy, but rather to point to the fact that communication is always hard and prone to breaking down

We never have to translate or communicate everything all at once. There are habitual and customary understandings we rely upon, intuitive meanings possible across difference, and while these are, as Elke rightly points out, often the problem, we cannot upend everything at once. So, being pragmatic here means addressing problems as they come. An important revision to classical pragmatism is required, however, as we must be attentive to the distribution of power and the diversity of experience in the social world. This is the vital importance of the idea of critical responsiveness for me. I would suggest that it is a duty of those of us with various kinds of social privilege, which is really a form of unequal social power. We need to aware of that and make space for other voices, other languages and modes of communication, making space for the actions of others that may disrupt our sense of the world. This virtue is a matter of democratic practice.

Everyone can be more responsive, but in the context of this work, I think it is a call that is vital for those who are most assured of their inclusion in the category of humanity, most able to see themselves in the human rights stories we tell. Further, that responsiveness, I think, means listening and learning more. This listening is crucial to developing critical intelligence in our contemporary condition.

And this shows that Elke is absolutely right when she supposes that “a lot hinges on this critical intelligence in the reconstruction of human rights as a democratising ethos”. Her insistence that this idea requires explication is spot on.

“In Hoover’s account, it [critical intelligence] seems to correspond to the ability to inquire into social conditions scientifically (as mode, not applying method), taking into consideration multiple institutions and their effects on society. But what informs this critical intelligence that undergirds our capacity for ethical inquiry in a pragmatic context? What are the normative elements upon which this idea of both criticality and intelligence rest? How are multiple ideas of criticality and intelligence contained in Hoover’s account of critical intelligence for situationist ethics? Can they be? The word ‘intelligence’ as an operative term is what rings alarm bells for me, and it may well be that in Dewey’s texts, it carries a connotation that I miss. In my understanding, intelligence as an operative term is complicated by the possibility of unequal conditions of access to specific types of intelligence, mental capacity or brainpower. This already might marginalise those hampered by conditions or structures that do not provide sufficient freedom of thought or expression for critical intelligence as an operational concept. This, for me, needs to be fleshed out more clearly.”

Critical intelligence, for Dewey, is a different way of thinking about the philosophical conceit of Reason. He wants to rethink what we are doing when we reflect on issues of meaning and action, particularly in terms of experimentation and practical consequences. Critical intelligence is a way of describing our capacity to think creatively and reflectively about what we believe and what we do. It doesn’t provide its own standards, its only ground is its capacity to help us improve our experience. And while Dewey describe this capacity in terms that celebrate science as a practice, it is vital to see that he understands science’s distinctiveness in terms of experimentalism, of its use of action to the change the given state of things. In the political and ethical realm, this means that critical intelligence, for Dewey, should be focused on seeing how far are existing ideals and practices serve our present needs (defined in context and specific to our perspective), while also searching for innovations of belief and action that might improve our experience. Intelligence is not a natural faculty, which some of us may have more than others but a method of organising experience in order to better know the consequences of action. That’s not an answer to Elke’s profound question but is as much as I can say about now.

This post is late and I have struggled against my own lousy time management, ill health and technical breakdowns… so, it can only be what it is, my imperfect and partial response to critics who have understood my work in ways I did not and taught me much about what I thought I knew all too well. Thank you! And there is still so much to say… just not now!


One thought on “So much to say, so much to say… A Reply

  1. “I have tended to use a language of civic virtues that I think is perhaps too beholden to agonistic themes, as Karen highlights. Now I’m drawn back to a Deweyan language of shaping habits, altering conduct and remaking institutions through democratic and educative practices. And this means not forgetting about the work involved!”
    is there any evidence that we have the sort of plasticity needed to actually hack our ways out of our need for knowing what actually is (and our related feelings of certainty)? my guess is that such drives aren’t manufactured (tho certainly shaped) by socialization but are more automatic in nature/structure much like our senses.


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