On the Public Spaces of Resistance: Merleau-Ponty, Derrida, and the Material Conditions for Critique

  • Author / Creator
    Worthy, Jay
  • In this dissertation I adopt a broad phenomenological perspective in order to develop in outline a ‘new materialism’ that facilitates the thinking of public space as a condition for political resistance. The project is motivated by recent movements such as Occupy, Black Lives Matter, and #MeToo that in various ways trouble some traditional as well as more recent theories of public space, thus indicating the need for renewed thinking of the notion of public space, as well as of the work of critique as a public project. A driving hypothesis is that recent literature in the philosophical fields of phenomenology and deconstruction offers resources to develop a materialist framework that would yield useful correctives in conversation with traditional Marxian thinking (e.g. Marx and Lukács) as well as with neo-Marxian approaches of critical theorists such as Habermas and Honneth. I pursue this hypothesis in two broad steps.

    First, and remaining largely within relevant literatures of phenomenology and deconstruction, most centrally the work of Merleau-Ponty and Derrida as well as recent commentators (e.g. Barbaras, Naas) I establish a materialist approach to public space as a basic condition for intersubjective relations between critical individuals. Where there is broad agreement within phenomenological thinking as to a ‘primacy’ of intersubjectivity as a condition for human engagements in a world, I emphasize that this intersubjectivity must be thought in terms of materiality. At the same time, and where even Merleau-Ponty appears earlier in his work to grasp materiality, and so intersubjectivity, as a synthetic structure, I argue for a notion of materiality that requires attention to a more radically fractured structure of intersubjective relations. As a result, I argue that a “public space” is best conceptualized as a field of relations not prefigured by any one set of terms for engagement, and which therefore tolerates apparently radical contradictions between differing claims made to it.

    Second, by bringing this phenomenological-deconstructive notion of a ‘primacy of intersubjectivity’ into conversation with the thinking of Marx, Honneth, and Habermas, I more explicitly develop my own materialist account of political engagement, that is, of a ‘primacy of the political.’ While the eventual account of public space arrived at owes a great deal to each of these thinkers, the essential divergence concerns the thinking of materiality as a medium for political relations: Whereas an inheritance from Marx is a tendency to think this medium as something to be appropriated by a public on collectively established terms – whether these terms are arrived at via the decisive work of revolution, or over the course of the discursive work of debate and consensus – I argue that no such collective claim is possible. As a result, I argue that a public space is best conceptualized as a space of resistance and dissensus, where the terms of political engagement are not fully established.

    A central conclusion that follows from my approach is that we have to be able to account for acts of political resistance in spaces that we would not traditionally call “public,” even where we might on traditional terms be reticent to call these acts “political.” The materialist approach that I propose in outline here is equipped to carry out precisely this sort of critical analysis, which explicates political tensions without reducing them to a single common situation, institution, or narrative.

  • Subjects / Keywords
  • Graduation date
    Fall 2018
  • Type of Item
  • Degree
    Doctor of Philosophy
  • DOI
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