Beyond Prisons, the Horizon of Natality: Rachel Jones Reading Kant

For part 2 of our series on philoSOPHIA 2014, we’re pleased to welcome Sarah Tyson.

I am still gathering together the little bits of my head from when it exploded at philoSOPHIA.[1] Here’s one shard I’ve been able to gather up: In “‘Born to Die’: Earthquakes, Materiality, Natality,” Rachel Jones previewed her new project that stages a conversation between Irigaray’s thought and the recent resurgence of materialist critiques in the social sciences and humanities via a reading of Kant’s essays about the Lisbon earthquake. Jones focused of her presentation was on one specific passage from Kant’s earthquake texts:

As men, who were born to die, we cannot bear it that some have died in the earthquake, and as those who are strangers here and possess nothing of our own, we are inconsolable, that goods have been lost which would soon have been left behind anyway in the general course of nature.[2]

Jones read the hell out of this passage. In fact, hearing her reading left me a little breathless in the way that good philosophy can. I will only respond to a small part of her reading here: Jones moved past the manifest Christian metaphysics behind the notion that we are born to die to consider how–in representations and responses to disasters–some are judged as more born to die than others.

Jones marked many complexities of proceeding with this reading against the grain, including resisting a redemptive logic of disaster and attending to the ways in which histories of racism, sexism, colonialism, and homophobia shape a disaster without also failing to attend to the way these events are not entirely under human control. With all this in mind, Jones asked: “What might it mean to displace Kant’s appeal to mortality, and to orient responses to disaster in relation to a horizon of natality and birth that takes into account both human beings’ maternal-material beginnings and their constitutive dependencies on a multiplicity of non-human materialities?”

I am still thinking through this question and the beautiful development Jones gave it. In particular, I wonder what such a reorientation looks like in relation to prisons. I often think of prisons in terms of disaster, as part of the long and enduring disaster of white supremacy in the US (and many other places shaped by colonialism). But prisons are also the main response to certain forms of violence, those we classify and prosecute as “crimes.” What does it look like to re-orient responses to acts of violence that are normally dealt with through imprisonment and sometimes execution in the manner that Jones suggests? To use Jones’s language, how could our responses to violence “foster the conditions that allow the initiatory movement of birth to be repeated and reaffirmed.”

It seems to me that people who are working to abolish prisons and redress violence in their communities are working to foster such conditions (generationFIVE, Communities Against Rape and Abuse, INCITE!, to name just a few). generationFIVE, an organization which seeks to end child sexual abuse in five generations, for instance, seeks to build the capacity of communities to respond effectively to abuse and assault. Through an analysis of how current dominant responses to child sexual abuse – criminalization and collusion – perpetuate harm to children, generationFIVE offers conceptual and practical resources for responding in ways that promote individual justice and collective liberation.[3] Their work acknowledges that our mutual interdependence, and hence, vulnerability, is not eliminable, while also acknowledging that we can change the way that vulnerability is currently organized for the benefit of some and the exploitation of others. I think to end the disaster of white supremacy, we are going to have to support, amplify, and creatively engage in such work. And I think Rachel Jones is developing vital theoretical resources to help us do it.


[1] Thanks to Andrew Dilts for helping me gather pieces into a blog.

[2] Kant, E2, p. 456; Kant, Natural Science, p. 360 ; trans modified.

[3] Sara Kershnar, Staci Haines, Gillian Harkins, Alan Greig, Cindy Wiesner, Mich Levy, Palak Shah, Mimi Kim and Jesse Carr, “Toward Transformative Justice: A Liberatory Approach to
Child Sexual Abuse and other forms of Intimate and Community Violence: A Call to Action for the Left and the Sexual and Domestic Violence Sectors,” (generationFIVE, 2007), 29