What It Feels Like to Be Free: The Tense of Justice

From the Series: Justice

Photo by Ben Sutherland, licensed under CC BY.

From the start, my desire lay with Michel Foucault. In graduate school I watched his 1971 debate with Noam Chomsky, “Human Nature: Justice vs. Power,” and was taken with his arrogant, half-smiling but ardent cynicism. Everything we (and Chomsky) place our hopes in—love, sympathy, knowledge, decency, human nature, and, most of all, justice—are historical concepts and, thus, products of a classed and unjust society. What matters, Foucault said, is not justice itself, for there is no such transhistorical thing. What matters is understanding how justice is put to work in the service of power.

Why I found that so seductive, I’m no longer as sure. There was, of course, the seductive pull of Foucault himself, both the man and his ideas. This, for me, remains. There was, too, the seduction of pessimism, of being against hope, idealism, and what might pass as naïveté. I’m no longer automatically drawn toward pessimism, but I do—for reasons I’ll outline below—remain steadfast against hope. But there was also the seduction of justiceitself. Justice, I am realizing, is thoroughly marked with eros: the fist, the passion, the symmetrical perfection. Believe in it or not, we are, when we speak of justice, impassioned: either seduced, seductive, or, like Chomsky, mathematically enamored. It is this conjuncture that surfaces in Elaine Scarry’s (2001) book on the subject, On Beauty and Being Just.

Reading this Correspondences session on justice, I am inspired by the essays written by Jessica Greenberg, Karen Ann Faulk, and Jessica Cooper, who all pose one shared and crucial question: why is injustice (the lack of something) more palpable than justice (the supposed fullness or perfection of something)? To put it another way: why is the ugly more palpable than the beautiful?

Faulk asks, in as many words: “What would a sense of justice feel like?” In the margins beside Faulk’s question, I scribbled: “Comfort? Ease? The absence of struggle?” There in Mexico City, in the wake of radical injustice, Faulk notes that justice might even feel like “inflicting equal suffering.” But these are different questions, aren’t they? It is one thing to ask what achieving justice would feel like (the exercise and effort of power; think Foucault 1982 in “The Subject and Power,” and another to ask what the presence of justice would feel like (the art and experience of pleasure; think Foucault 1981 in “Friendship as a Way of Life”). I want to argue here—along with Scarry, but also with (one face of) Foucault and with Audre Lorde and then, if I may, with Nina Simone—that a sense of justice is a sense of fullness and thus, contra Jacques Derrida (1992), exists not horizonally but only in the radical present. Justice, like art, is a practice. I argue that hope is not justice’s modality but its single obstacle.

From the start, my desire lay with Foucault, but also with Audre Lorde. (I have a paper filed away that perhaps I’ll publish one day called “My Love-Child Fantasies: Audre Lorde, Michel Foucault, and the Matter of Life as Art.”) Like my affair with Foucault, mine with Lorde began in college, specifically with her “Litany for Survival” (Lorde 1995) and her incantation of self as warrior. But what did her war look like? Yes, it included surviving cancer and raising children in a world in which they “were never meant to survive” (Lorde 1995, 32), and, yes, it was refusing silence at all and any costs. But it was also, as she says in “Poetry is Not a Luxury” (Lorde 1984), about seizing moments between late shifts as a hospital nurse to write verse, or as she writes in Zami (Lorde 1982), to be seduced by an older woman in Mexico with scars as breasts and then to dedicate her life to the erotic. Even in the midst of war (“we were never meant to survive”), hers was a war of and for beauty. For me, there is a connection here with Foucault (1984, 350) who—also openly occupying the erotic subject position of the homosexual—asks, in “On the Genealogy of Ethics”: “But couldn’t everyone’s life become a work of art? Why should the lamp or the house be an art object, but not our life?”

And so I come back to Scarry’s volume on the aesthetics and erotics of the political. Scarry opens by quoting Ludwig Wittgenstein, who said of beauty that “when the eye sees something beautiful, the hand wants to draw it.” Her point, through Wittgenstein’s conception of beauty, is that beauty simultaneously affects and arrests us. It makes us stop what we are doing and want to do something else, something generative but, crucially, something that is bound always to fail. We will never succeed in replicating or apprehending the beautiful thing or idea, which is why Scarry (2001, 23) says that beauty is the relationship between certainty and error, “hymn and palinode.” This is not, however, to say that beauty (as Derrida says of justice) is always horizonal, aspirational, or unfinished. Beauty, Scarry suggests, never promises because it has no aspiration: it is, in its face as justice, every end in itself.

Here is another point of seduction: this idea of a life lived without “the promise” of anything, in fact done without reference to a promise of things to come. This is the ethical space I’ve been writing about as “immanent ethics” (Dave 2017), or what Elizabeth Povinelli (2011) calls “immanent obligation,” or Lauren Berlant calls “elliptical life” (see Byler 2012). This is the idea of a life lived ethically, yet without recourse to justification or its antecedent, justice: a refusal of the future anterior, the it will have been worth it.

In my research on the ethics and politics of human/animal relations in India, I encounter a lot of people who are exhausted by the demands and promise of justice: of righting innumerable wrongs; of squaring one’s own inconsistencies; of a sense of weakness and impotence; of utter sorrow; of being hunted by nightmares of past and future failures (Dave 2014; Singh and Dave 2015). Among these people are a family I’ve written about elsewhere: Erika, Jim, and their daughter, Claire. They live in Udaipur, Rajasthan, and they run a shelter for animals. We were talking one afternoon in their home about hope, justice, and labor. The question for our roundtable was: “Can one work without hope?” I argued yes, and told a story about a man named Dipesh who painstakingly removed maggots from a dog’s bum but seemed indifferent when, moments later, the dog was nearly hit by a car. “She’s old,” he said with a shrug, while he looked for a place to dispose of the dead maggots. He doesn’t have hopes for the dog. And yet he works, and works with the greatest of attention. His, I said, is a love without future, a kind of fullness of being (a beauty) in every moment. Claire responded with a story about guilt, about a problem of tense and space. She finds that whatever she is doing, a part of her is always somewhere else: why am I here with this single animal when I could be doing more radical, bigger things like working undercover at a slaughterhouse or rescuing animals from a lab? But sometimes—so rarely that she can remember them all—she has fleeting glimpses of what we might call justice: her hand on an animal, a mutual warmth, where everything feels full and she knows she is only where she is supposed to be.

This reminded Erika of a Nina Simone song, and we huddled around her laptop to watch Simone perform “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free.” Simone has longings: to break her chains, to say everything she has to say, to give and to love to the extent of her capacity—to be free. Erika’s interpretation startled me. Simone’s chains, she said, are not just those of racism and sexism and fear. Her chain is also hope. As long as one is chained to the hope of something better, Erika said, she is not and cannot be free. This is why Simone ends with the image of a bird: this bird does not hope to fly; it just flies. In “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to be Free,” the feeling of being free would be to not have wishes.

There is something here that resonates with, but still, I think, departs from Cooper’s insightful argument about patience: patience as a kind of stillness, a form, perhaps, of being arrested. I am persuaded by Cooper that patience is not necessarily a waiting. But it still—like Derrida’s conception of justice—seems to rest on a promise, a horizon, an unknowability that thrusts us, however patiently, forever forward. Can justice exist where we can never be still, never be at home in the world? Instead of unknowability, I want to suggest something else: that we only ever do know justice, and only in those moments when we have no wishes. This is not to say that the world is just. Every person in and across these four essays knows that it is not. But it is one thing to ask about the sense of achieving justice, which is always a martial act (Foucault said to Chomsky, “we must fight, but it is war, not justice”), and another to ask about the sense of its presence. What would a sense of justice feel like? Or as Greenberg puts it, when is justice done? Let’s ask Nina Simone: when we can sing, or pull maggots from a sick dog’s bum, totally and without any wishes.


Byler, Darren. 2012. “Walking Around in Lauren Berlant’s ‘Elliptical Life’.” Announcements, Cultural Anthropology website, December 10.

Dave, Naisargi N. 2014. “Witness: Humans, Animals, and the Politics of Becoming.” Cultural Anthropology 29, no. 3: 433–56.

_____. 2017. “Something, Everything, Nothing: Or, Cows, Dogs, and Maggots.” Social Text 35, no. 1: 37–57.

Derrida, Jacques. 1992. “Force of Law: The ‘Mystical Foundation of Authority.’” Translated by Mary Quaintance. In Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice, edited by Drucilla Cornell, Michael Rosenfeld, and David Gray Carlson, 3–67. New York: Routledge.

Foucault, Michel. 1982. “The Subject and Power.” In Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, edited by Hubert L. Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow, 208–228. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

_____. 1984. “On the Genealogy of Ethics: An Overview of Work in Progress.” In The Foucault Reader, edited by Paul Rabinow, 340–72. New York: Pantheon Books.

_____. 1994. “Friendship as a Way of Life.” In Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, edited by Paul Rabinow, 135–40. Originally published in 1981.

Lorde, Audre. 1982. Zami: A New Spelling of My Name. Berkeley, Calif.: Crossing Press.

_____. 1984. “Poetry is Not a Luxury.” In Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde, 36–39. Berkeley, Calif.: Crossing Press.

_____. 1995. The Black Unicorn. New York: W. W. Norton.

Povinelli, Elizabeth A. 2011. Economies of Abandonment: Social Belonging and Endurance in Late Liberalism. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Scarry, Elaine. 2001. On Beauty and Being Just. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Singh, Bhrigupati, and Naisargi N. Dave. 2015. “On the Killing and Killability of Animals: Nonmoral Thoughts for the Anthropology of Ethics.” Comparative Studies in South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East 35, no. 2: 232–45.