Liminality, Radical Personal Transformation, and Conditions for Rational Deliberation:
Susan Babbitt, María Lugones, and Toni Morrison's Beloved

Alexis Shotwell*

How can we think about deep change in a person's self? What about when such change flies in the face of everything generally considered normal, within bounds, rational? What if the self is itself out of, or in between, boundaries? Does our conception of selfhood have a relationship to our understanding of self-transformation? I think it is useful to us to think about personal change in terms of a conception of the self as multiple; I want to offer a reading of Toni Morrison's novel Beloved that highlights the usefulness of thinking of change and multiplicity through an articulation of liminality. I am interested in radical heterodox personal transformation, and in the conditions for rational decision making within the context of multiple selfhood. I argue that the notion of liminality provides us with a crucial explanatory framework for thinking through such change. My consideration of selfhood and transformation is in conversation with Susan Babbitt's arguments about personal transformation and María Lugones' discussion of selfhood. I center this discussion around a consideration of Beloved, attending to the question of how we might think it rational for Sethe, the main character in the book, to kill her daughter rather than see her enslaved. Her transformation of consciousness is, I think, based on acting outside the logic of her oppression through her liminality, her memory of herself in at least two different worlds.

The foundation of this paper is in Babbitt's response to two aspects of the standard liberal view of conditions for rational deliberation. These conditions are that a person must be rational, have full information about the choice she is making, and be able to vividly imagine the consequences of her choice. Babbitt argues that this account of rational deliberation has two underlying premises: that the complete information required for deliberation is propositional information, and that the self a decision maker imagines in the future is an untransformed self. Here, I want to attend to her argument that in many cases, one's self must be changed, sometimes in profound ways, in order for one to make rational decisions.

While I very much agree with this aspect of Babbitt's argument, I articulate an understanding of selfhood and identity that differs from Babbitt's understanding of identity. Where Babbitt's conception of the self relies on deep self-unity I think that an effective response to the second underlying premise of the liberal view - that the self remains unchanged through the process of making rational decisions - must include an understanding of the self as both liminal and multiple. This is a model that seems to me to more closely capture the way consciousness arises, and how it can come about in relation to dominant, and most often oppressive, ideologies and realities. María Lugones offers a very convincing argument about self multiplicity and transformation in the context of systemic oppression, and I examine her argument for the account she offers of liberatory consciousness. I find her understanding of liminality very useful in thinking about transformation generally, and Susan Babbitt's account of transformation particularly. Lugones' discussion of acting out of a position of liminality in such a way that one changes the logic of one's position offers a different and, I argue, necessary account of how oppressed people are able to act against oppression. It is explicitly based in the premise that multiple identities are the source of liberatory knowledge and any potential for liberatory action.

In situations of oppression, I think a model of the self as multiple is valuable; I have been convinced of this largely because of reading of Morrison's Beloved. As I explore below, my reading of Sethe's actions differs from Babbitt's - where Babbitt argues that Sethe's action in response to impending re-enslavement is understandable from a point of view on which Sethe is a full human being, I argue that her action is understandable only because her self is a product of fundamental liminality. This difference has implications for a theory of selfhood and liberatory transformation.

A change would do you good

Making claims about beneficial transformations - about what it liberatory - involves the danger of making claims about others' perception of their lives - both epistemically and politically. Theorists have attempted to work with this danger in a number of ways. Liberalism is a particularly influential account of how to work with the tension of acknowledging individual agency while also making judgments of others' decisions. I want to begin with an examination of Susan Babbitt's articulation of personal transformation, which arises in response to the liberal account of understanding another person's interests.

The liberal view of better and worse states of being rests on the premise that there is a strong connection between the determination of objective interests and rational decision making. The liberal approach can be seen in John Rawls's work A Theory of Justice. On Babbitt's reading, Rawls' argument takes it that a person's rational choice is what she would choose to do under a number of conditions. In order to make a rational choice, in Rawls' sense, that person must first have the ability to think rationally, to reason. Second, she must possess comprehensive information about the choice she is making. Third, she must have the ability to "vividly imagine the consequences of her actions".1 These three conditions are sufficient, on the liberal view, to make a rational choice about one's best interests. Two aspects of this view are important to Babbitt's account of rational deliberation, which amount to two unstated premises about the person making a decision. First, the complete information required for rational choice is taken to be propositional information - the sort of knowledge one could easily convey in speech. Second, the liberal view as expressed by Rawls takes it that the self a decision-maker projects into the future is a self unchanged from the present. In other words, the self she vividly imagines as she makes a rational choice is fundamentally the same self as the one deliberating.

Susan Babbitt discusses personal transformation and nonpropositional understanding in response to these two premises of conditions for rational choice, on the liberal view. First, Babbitt thinks that the liberal account is too limited in its understanding of what counts as knowledge, and that it does not allow for important sorts of nonpropositional knowledge - emotions, ways of proceeding, the tacit understandings that make up the background of our experience. Second, she thinks that the liberal view is mistaken in holding that the self must be an unchanged self. She argues that in many cases personal transformation is a significant contributing factor to one's ability to determine one's objective interests. I want to bracket, here, the important discussion of how nonpropositional, or tacit (to use Michael Polanyi's term), knowledge figures in radical personal transformation, attending rather to the argument that the self making a rational decision may need to be a transformed self. Babbitt argues that the self possesses integrity and is unitary; I offer an alternate viewpoint, of the self as multiple. I root this account in María Lugones's work; she gives a convincing account of liberatory consciousness that relies on a nonunitary sense of self. It is an account that offers a more adequate explanation of important aspects of Beloved.

Personal Transformation

Babbitt argues that in many cases, people must undergo personal transformation in order to conceive of themselves as fully human. Babbitt uses the term "personal transformation" to mean a transformative liberatory shift in consciousness. She thinks that the necessity of such shifts is particularly clear in cases of systemic oppression, where members of oppressed groups must think outside the (oppressive) interpretative framework provided for them. Babbitt argues that in order for members of deeply oppressed groups to gain access to their objective interests they must sometimes undergo liberatory personal transformation. Such a transformation would include the sort of change that a person who has been deeply discriminated against might have to undergo in order to think of herself as possessing inherent dignity.

In illustration of this point, Babbitt discusses Thomas Hill's example of the Deferential Wife2. The Deferential Wife is a an imagined woman who defines herself in term of her subordination to her husband, and who regards deference and devotion to him as constitutive of her total happiness.3 The Deferential Wife might possess all the characteristics of a (liberal) rational decision maker; she could be a reasoning agent, have full and complete information about her situation, and be able to vividly imagine herself in the future. Nevertheless, decisions she makes based on a non-autonomous, servile self will be decisions that we generally reject as the rational choices of a person aiming for her best interests. For instance, imagine that the Deferential Wife's Husband has suffered a downturn in fortunes, to the extent that he is no longer able to buy enough food to feed two people well. Say that his income will feed both of them adequately, but in a style that will make the Husband less than completely happy. It is imaginable that the Wife might evaluate all the information about their financial state, the cost of food, and decide to feed herself so little that she will become malnourished, so that her Husband will have food enough to be content. In order for her to make a decision conducive to her own happiness and survival, the Deferential Wife would have to change her self, such that she would evaluate her dietary needs as equally important as her Husband's. Her untransformed self is one defined by servility. In order for her to make an autonomous decision in her objective interest, the Wife would have to change her very self. Such a change is ruled out by the liberal requirements for the vividly imagining self to be the same at the time of rational choosing and in the future imagined.

Babbitt claims that in certain cases, political and personal transformation experiences are the source of understanding what it would be to flourish. I read her as saying that members of marginalized groups are particular candidates for transformation experiences - that existing outside the norms of a dominant culture may actually require one to undergo conversion experiences, simply to make possible thinking of oneself as a self at all. I take it that communities can not only exist outside the norms of dominant culture, but can support the development of robust senses of self in members of those communities. Related to the claim that sometimes people must transform in order to think of themselves as possessing basic dignity is the idea that there are cases where action seems irrational from the point of view of dominant ideologies, but is rational from the stance of an individual acting as a full human agent.

As I note above, Babbitt's discussion of liberatory personal transformation focuses on Sethe, a character from Toni Morrison's novel, Beloved. Sethe takes the seemingly irrational action of attempting to kill her children to prevent them from being returned to slavery. She succeeds in killing one of her daughters in an act that is, at first pass, quite irrational - if, we take the term "irrational" somewhat colloquially, and mean by it "doesn't make sense." Her act is irrational from at least two viewpoints, though Babbitt discusses only one of these. The first is the viewpoint of schoolteacher, Sethe's enslaver and the man from whom she and her children escaped. This is a view in which Sethe is a slave, and from it, her action is at least inconceivable and practically impossible. When schoolteacher sees Sethe, about to kill her second daughter, his immediate reaction is of dismissal and erasure: "Right off it was clear, to schoolteacher especially, that there was nothing there to claim".4 Sethe has moved into a different space; perhaps a space of selfhood outside of dominant ideology, certainly a space physically outside Sweet Home, where Sethe was enslaved, and arguably a space that allows her a profound shift in who she is. She is nothing schoolteacher can understand, nothing worth claiming. One of the men who came with him to capture Sethe says over and over "What she want to go and do that for?" To the white slave-owner's mind, the act of a slave killing her children is outside of logic; there is simply no way to conceptualize such an act.

From the point of view of Paul D, one of the men Sethe was enslaved with, Sethe's act is equally irrational, and, I think, for similar reasons. To be a slave is, among other things, to refrain from "loving big". When Paul D hears Sethe's explanation of why she killed her baby, he knows what she means. She tells him about her discovery of agency; freeing herself and her children allowed her to access a whole realm of experience she had not touched. One part of that realm was the freedom to love her children without reserve not to "love small". Sethe says "...maybe I couldn't love em proper in Kentucky because they wasn't mine to love. But when I got here, when I jumped down off that wagon - there wasn't nobody in the world I couldn't love if I wanted to". 5 Paul D understands what Sethe means, understands that to love that way meant freedom. He can't accept it as reasonable, though, to take action based on loving big because he understands himself and Sethe, at this point, to be constrained by the strictures of slavery. When he perceives Sethe as not constrained by those rules - among them the protective understanding to love small - he is shocked. Looking at her, he realizes:

This here Sethe talked about love like any other woman; talked about baby clothes like any other woman, but what she meant could cleave the bone. This here Sethe talked about safety with a handsaw. This here new Sethe didn't know where the world stopped and she began. Suddenly he saw what Stamp Paid had wanted him to see: more important that what Sethe had done was what she claimed. It scared him.6

Both schoolteacher and Paul D see Sethe's actions as illogical within the logic of slavery, where Sethe is bound by the constraints of that logic. 7

The second point of view from which Sethe is irrational is from the viewpoint in which she is a full human. Here, my interpretation differs significantly from Babbitt's claims about Beloved; she argues that Sethe's action is rational from the point of view in which she is a full human. I think that in a possible world in which Sethe had always been accorded and able to manifest full human dignity, always been able to choose what she loved and how much, there would be no construction of her action in which killing her daughter was logical. This viewpoint is, I think, that of most people before they read this book. Without an understanding of slavery, the conditions such that a person would kill her children rather than let them be re-enslaved are not accessible, or at least not readily accessible, to a post antebellum logic. I think that most readers of Beloved have to become used to the particular space in which Sethe acts, because Morrison brings the reader to some understanding of the horror of slavery. Without the context of the book, Sethe's act would remain illogical, irrational. Sethe's sense of self has changed fundamentally; she is no longer a person who can love small, as a slave should, and she has never been a person who could love big in the uninterrogated way a woman who has never been enslaved might. Her sense of self has shifted so that it includes both an understanding of her self as a former slave and as an escaped slave, a free woman.

The third viewpoint, from which Sethe's action is rational, is a liminal logic. When Sethe takes the action of attempting to kill her children rather than allow them to return to slavery, she is neither a slave nor a full human. She exists between those states, or in some other state altogether, and it is her existence in the interstice of her world that allows her to act outside the logics of her world. She contains the knowledge both of enslavement and of freedom, and it is through the connection of those experiences that her action makes sense. So, while it seems that Babbitt is very right in understanding the possibility of Sethe's act as rational in terms of the transformation Sethe has undergone, she is wrong in attributing that rationality to a self that has transformed into a manifestation full human freedom. Rather, Sethe's self has transformed into a deeply liminal self, and the rationality of her action arises out of the co-presence of her different selves. I want to flesh out the kind of between-ness Sethe inhabits with a discussion of María Lugones' understanding of liminality and multiple selfhood.

I have been focusing on one underlying premise of the liberal view - that the self remains unchanged through the process of making rational decisions. Though this discussion of the self is rooted in the fairly narrow scope of the liberal assessment of conditions of rational deliberation, I want to now expand this inquiry to examine models of selfhood, of the type of consciousness which leads to liberatory knowledge. I argue, with Babbitt, that people often must undergo liberatory transformation in order to manifest full human dignity. I differ from her view in my understanding of whether the self that undergoes transformation is a unitary or a multiple self.

The project of endorsing personal transformation presupposes an understanding of what sort of state it is desirable to transform to. In thinking about themselves and other people, many theorists want to be able to make claims about the usefulness, helpfulness, and adequacy of ways of thinking and leading lives. These claims are grounded in some conception of liberatory consciousness--sometimes articulated as feminist consciousness, lesbian consciousness, or race consciousness. I next turn to another aspect of personal transformation, offering an account of transformation based on multiplicity of identity.

The Self as Multiple and the Self as Unitary

Babbitt's argues for a unitary self; that is, a self in which the adequacy of personal identity is measured in terms of the personal integrity available to a person.8 As I discuss below, I think an epistemically-rooted articulation of the self allows the inclusion of the knowledge people have access to in various aspects of their experience - knowledge that in one part of their life may be unproblematic, but in another might present problems. It points toward the possibility, or the importance of, conceiving of the self as multiple. Lugones focuses on what it is to know oneself in multiple life worlds, and what implications such knowing has on selves. Though Lugones does not use the language of personal transformation to the extent that Babbitt does, she offers a strong account of oppression, conditions for liberation, and the process of achieving such conditions.

I am interested in Lugones in particular because she integrates an understanding of the self as multiple with an articulation of the process of having liberatory knowledge and taking liberatory action. I want to start this discussion by touching on Lugones' expression of "world" travelling and its relation to the self as many. In her article "Playfulness, `World'-Travelling, and Loving Perception"9, Lugones describes her experience as someone who is forced, as a person outside the mainstream, to travel between many different frames of reference, many different "worlds". She discusses particularly her experience of herself as both having and not having the attribute of playfulness; in some parts of her life, both she and people around her identified her as playful. In others, she and others identified her as not playful - as very serious. These self-characteristics are not just happenstance; they are linked to broader perceptions about things like race and class, perceptions that shape what is possible for a self in various circumstances. She says "Those of us who are `world'-travelers have the distinct experience of being different in different `worlds' and of having the capacity of remember other `worlds' and ourselves in them".10 The differentness Lugones is talking about here is not like changing clothes; it is, rather, a shift from being one person to being a different person. It is not a matter of acting like someone else, pretending to be another person; in one "world", one is a different person than in another "world". This different person-ness is a multiplicity of self. In Lugones' words:

One does not pose as someone else, one does not pretend to be, for example, someone of a different personality or character or someone who uses space or language differently than the other person. Rather one is someone who has that personality or character or uses space and language in that particular way. The `one' here does not refer to some underlying `I'. One does not experience any underlying `I'.11

The absence of any underlying "I" is also an absence of a unitary self; it implies at least doubleness of self, plurality. In order to unpack the implications of this notion through first interrogating Babbitt's articulation of what counts as an adequate sense of self, then discussing Lugones' theory as an example of a useful alternative conception of selfhood.

Babbitt roots her discussion of personal integrity and selfhood in the argument that sometimes it is necessary for people to act "ahead of reality"12 - to act in such a way that their action itself changes their reality. She thinks this is particularly the case in situations of deep oppression, in which an oppressed person might have to change their reality in order to act at all, or as a nonoppressed person might act. Babbitt says: "I understand the term `personal integrity' to refer to the adequacy of identity, where by `identity' I mean the sense of self presupposed in an individual's deliberations and actions".13 This aspect of Babbitt's definition of identity is fairly uncontentious; it is the sense of self presupposed in deliberations from which one acts. However, Babbitt argues that a more substantive notion of identity is a normative one, a sense of self people try to achieve. In her words: "the kind of self-concept people try to discover and develop to act autonomously, to be in control of their lives, where control is the realization of real interests. And personal integrity, therefore, might be understood as the achievement and presupposition of such a self concept - a distinct identity - or of an adequate sense of individuality".14 That is, sometimes, in order for a person to develop personal integrity, that person must act as though she already possessed it. Babbitt thinks that sometimes people have to arise as more than they are in order to be able to evaluate what is in their best interests - they have to act ahead of their current reality. This view is in opposition to the liberal view (as expressed by John Rawls) that people can evaluate what is in their best interests without any sort of deep transformation.

Babbitt's discussion of personal integrity, individuality, is strongly tied to an account of rational choice. She wants to define integrity in terms of the possibilities available to a person for acting in ways that make her situation more conducive to manifesting things like dignity and self worth. These possibilities are often just that - possibilities, not already existing actualities. In her words: "in significant cases, personal integrity is defined, in important part, in terms of imagined possibilities for pursuing human flourishing, even though these possibilities may not be imaginable by the people in question at the time".15 Babbitt has a strong commitment to the idea that people do at times, and particularly in situations of oppression, act ahead of reality in ways that change reality. There is no sense, on Babbitt's view, in which this sense of self in either its diminished or adequate manifestations is fragmented or multiple. It is, rather, coherent and unified.

Christine Korsgaard offers an account16 of self unity that seems to be in line with what Babbitt has in mind when she holds to a unified conception of the self. It is one that offers non-metaphysical (what Korsgaard calls "practical") reasons to think of the self as coherent and unified over time. She offers two main reasons to understand the self in this way. The first element of pragmatic unity is that we act, that we are able to eliminate conflict between divergent motives or desires. In Korsgaard's words: "You are a unified person at any given time because you must act, and you have only one body with which to act"17; this view of unity partially rests, then, on the practicalities of having a body. The second element is "the unity implicit in the standpoint from which you deliberate and choose".18 So, while it might actually be the case that our strongest motivation "wins" - that it decides for us how we will act - we experience the process of deciding as rooted in something expressive of our self, a reasoning capacity that "provides reasons that regulate our choices among our desires"19. The unified self, on Korsgaard's view, is necessary to action. Babbitt posits a similar self in her account of acting ahead of reality.

Some of the examples Babbitt uses to illustrate her claims about personal integrity, and conditions for individuality, are drawn from Beloved Babbitt argues, based on this notion of acting ahead of reality, that when Sethe claims the capacity to love big, to love her children in a way that was impossible as a slave, she is claiming a possibility that did not exist before she claimed it. In other words, attempting to kill her children brought about the conditions under which such an act could be understood as loving big. "She makes a claim on the strength of intuitions that cannot be explicitly justified, probably not even to herself. And it looks as though her making the claim is precisely what is required for the discovery of such justification".20 Babbitt thinks that justification for Sethe's claim to loving big is based on taking a view on which Sethe possesses full humanity, and in which it is reasonable for Sethe to move toward self respect. Contrary to Babbitt's account, I want to argue that Sethe does not have a relatively unitary self, which transforms in such a way that she comes to think of herself as possessing full human potential. Rather, I think that Sethe contains within herself the selves that she has been, the person she has become, and because of the relationship between those self-understandings, the persons she can imagine herself as in the future. Babbitt's model of selfhood, based on acting ahead of reality, seems to me to be overly mystified; the mechanisms of how such a self actually produces positive change are unclear. I think this mystification is in part due to Babbitt's allegiance to the idea that the self transforms in order to create the conditions in which it is possible for it to fully flourish and that such transformation creates further integrity, unity.

In contrast to Babbitt's view, María Lugones argues that it is through the interactions of a person's multiple selves that liberatory knowledge can arise. She takes it that "who we are" is at least two selves, rooted in different social locations. Lugones says: "I am giving up the claim that the subject is unified. Instead I am understanding each person as many".21 As I touch on briefly, above, she roots this claim in the experience of bi- and multi-cultural people, who have "desires, character, and personality traits" different in one social world than in another. In her article on "world" travelling, Lugones discusses this difference in terms of the trait of playfulness, which she possesses in one "world" she inhabits but lacks in others. Seeing that possession, and that lack, gives Lugones a window into stereotypes and norms of both "worlds". The experience of multiplicity, Lugones argues, provides the space in which one can act outside the norms of worlds in which one lives. She thinks of this as living in the limen, a concept I discuss in more detail below. Standpoint epistemologist Sandra Harding also argues that the experience of multiplicity is a valuable source of liberatory knowledge and activity. In her words:

Bearing an identity or speaking from a social location that is perceived as a contradiction in terms can be a serious disadvantage within political, economic, and social structures, but such an identity can be turned into a scientific and epistemological advantage. In activating our identities as women scientists, women philosophers, African American women sociologists, lesbian literary theorists - women subjects and generators of thought, not just objects of others' thoughts - we exploit the friction, the gap, the dissonance between multiple identities.22

Existing in more than one reality, living a multiple reality, can be the source of a kind of knowledge - often tacit - that allows the formation of liberatory selves. An important part of reality, on Lugones' view, is the people who contribute to that reality.

Liminal transformations and memory

María Lugones offers a valuable account of agency under oppression, explicating an argument about liminality that deepens Babbitt's understanding of acting ahead of reality. This account is valuable to the project of articulating personal transformation in part because they offer a non-homogeneous understanding of reality, the sort of understanding that opens the possibility of the thinking ahead of reality, in Babbitt's sense. I want to examine Lugones' argument about the possibilities of subjective liberation with an eye toward how her conception of the liberatory self illuminates some of what I have discussed above. I focus particularly on three aspects of her discussion: what it is to act outside the logic of oppression, the importance of memory, and role of liminal experience in liberation.

Lugones thinks that many accounts of oppression themselves leave "the subject trapped inescapably in the oppressive system".23 She uses the examples of Karl Marx's account of capitalism's oppression of laborers and of Marilyn Frye's account of the (usually male) arrogant perception of women. About Marx, Lugones says: "The proletarian joining with other proletarian in class struggle is not countenanced by the logic of class oppression. I do not understand the subjective mechanisms of its production".24 All the activities open to the worker, in Marx's analysis of capitalist oppression, end in a propagation of their own oppression; to be a worker is to be limited by the bounds of capitalism - it is why one works, in that framework. This is what it is to be trapped in a (Aristotelian) practical syllogism structured by the oppressor's logic. In the same way, the arrogantly perceived woman of Frye's analysis is constructed such that she cannot, by definition, liberate herself. To be arrogantly perceived is to be incapable to do anything but that which the arrogant perceiver wills. That is what it is to be a proletarian, and that is what it is to be an arrogantly perceived woman. These structural observations about oppression theory lead Lugones to say that "It is a desideratum of oppression theory that it portray oppression in its full force, as inescapable, if that is its full force".25 She looks at this idea in a discussion of the practical syllogism.

Aristotle's practical syllogism is one that ends in action, or, for Lugones, and in the case of oppressed persons, inability to act. Lugones' discussion of the practical syllogism is particularly interesting to me because I think it speaks to precisely the point Babbitt makes, about the necessity of dreaming possible worlds before they can exist. This is how: Lugones thinks that there is a similarity between Aristotle's account of the slave's relation to the master's syllogisms, and the arrogantly perceived woman's syllogisms in relation to the arrogant perceiver's syllogisms. The similarity lies in the structuring of the perceived's syllogisms by the perceiver's. Differences lie in the fact that the arrogantly perceived woman has a syllogism at all - for Aristotle, the slave lacks reason; "The master reasons and the slave does".26 For Lugones, the arrogantly perceived woman has practical reason, but it is structured, or mediated, by the arrogant perceiver. This means that her syllogism, the logic of her action, is limited by the sorts of logical choices the arrogant perceiver allows. As Lugones says: "In a world tightly and inescapably structured by arrogant perception, lesbian reasoning, woman-loving reasoning, lacks authority or is impossible".27 This means that in order to act according to reasoning that does not fit with arrogant perception we must construct practical syllogisms that are illogical according to the arrogant perceiver. We have to step outside the structure of oppression, and work within a frame consistent with the logic of alternative syllogisms. Syllogisms that are illogical from the point of view of oppressors but logical to the oppressed emphatically underline the soundness of new sorts of practical syllogisms.

Notice the similarity between this account and Babbitt's reasoning that in order to act outside of the structures of oppression we must act outside of, or through breaking apart, apparent logics of action. I think that Lugones would say that Sethe's decision to kill her child was rational, as Babbitt does, on the grounds that for Sethe to refuse the actions available to her was for her to choose another conclusion to her syllogism. Those available to her - to return her daughter to slavery, to "love small" - made perfect sense within a logical structure of slavery. The action she takes - to kill her daughter rather than return her to slavery - is illogical within that framework.

Lugones advocates a conception of oppression such that the conception is itself liberatory; it necessitates rather than precludes the possibility of liberatory knowing and action. Such a theory of oppression implies ontological pluralism. Lugones grounds her articulation of the source of liberatory consciousness in this conception of pluralism. The ability to construct new syllogisms arises from an open-endedness, which "is possible because the self is not unified but plural".28 Lugones bases her claims about the multiplicity of selves on the examples of experiences of bicultural people who, she says, are familiar with the experience of being more than one. They experience reality differently in different realities. I have a former classmate who expressed this by drawing a comparison between the self he was in his predominantly white philosophy classes at Dalhousie University, in Nova Scotia, and when he visited his black relatives in Ghana. In one reality, he said, he manifested a different physicality and way of speaking than in the other - his sense of self was different. In both, though, he carried his memory of one into the other. Further, his lived experience of Dalhousie was a presence with his extended family in Ghana - their perceptions of his other life was important to his relationship and way of behaving with them. This experience is related to Harding's understanding of bifurcation. Lugones notes that it is unclear that the self could contain two sorts of consciousness (a liberatory and an oppressed consciousness, for example) and be a unitary self.29 Along with this conception of plurality is a shift in practical syllogisms. In her words: "the practical syllogisms that they go through in one reality are not possible for them in the other, given that they are such different people in the two realities".30 That the activities and thinking of one reality do not necessarily carry over from one reality into another is expressed in the non-continuity of syllogisms from one to the other.

Lugones examines this lack of transferability of practical reason from one world to the next in two ways: first, as practical syllogisms relate to her claim that the self is multiple, and second, as the construction of syllogisms relate to liberatory experience and action.

Memory is the link between practical syllogisms and multiple selves; it is the factor of self understanding that allows a person to access liberatory multiplicity. The possibility of remembering the intentions, meanings, and actions of one world after one moves into another is important. Memory is what opens the possibility of Sethe taking apparently non-rational, arguably rational, action; she remembers herself as unenslaved, as a full human, even after she re-enters the reality where her child can be taken from her and enslaved. In Lugones' words: "One understands herself in every world in which one remembers oneself . . . the task of remembering one's other selves is a difficult liberatory task".31 Memory in this sense is the meaningful retention of selves that oppressive control renders invisible and erased.

Practical syllogisms become liberatory syllogisms in the space between constructed, hierarchical realities, in the limen. The liberatory potential of the limen lies in its nature as a social state between social states--"it contains both the multiplicity of the self and the possibility of structural critique. Both are important components of the subjective possibility of liberation".32 The limen is the space where liberatory syllogisms are possible in that it is a space separate from the manipulation of the arrogant perceiver. It is the perspective from which certain unquestioned, solid, propositions are fluid, and from which changes can cause other propositions to stand fast. Liberatory theory, the practical syllogism, and the multiplicity of selves come together in Lugones' claim that "the oppressed know themselves in realities in which they are able to form intentions that are not among the alternatives that are possible in the world in which they are brutalized and oppressed".33 This knowing is linked to having and telling stories of one's multiple and shifting selves.

Sethe's actions when schoolteacher comes to enslave her provide a good example of the three threads of Lugones' thought I have discussed here - the logic of anti oppression activity, memory, and liminality. I agree with Babbitt's argument that Sethe's action is illogical within schoolteacher's framework, but disagree with her claim Sethe's killing her daughter is logical from a framework in which she is free, in which she is a full human being. Sethe's action is logical, but it is logical from neither of those standpoints. The only framework within which it is rational for Sethe to kill her youngest daughter and attempt to kill her other children is one in which she contains the consciousness of both freedom and enslavement. She brings with her, into freedom, her memory of herself in the world of Sweet Home, as a slave. It is intrinsically part of her perception, her emotions, and her deepest understandings of herself and her world. And when she reaches Baby Suggs' house, and freedom, she draws into her and contains within her the knowledge of what it means for her to be there. And containing the knowledge of both those states, both those realities, she says to Paul D about coming to Baby Suggs:

It was a kind of selfishness I never knew nothing about before. It felt good. Good and right. I was big, Paul D, and deep and wide and when I stretched out my arms all my children could get in between. I was that wide. Look like I loved em more after I got here. Or maybe I couldn't love em proper in Kentucky because they wasn't mine to love. But when I got here, when I jumped down off that wagon - there wasn't nobody in the world I couldn't love if I wanted to... I couldn't let all that go back to where it was, and I couldn't let my baby nor any of em live under schoolteacher. That was out.34

The memory of enslavement is the root of the new logic Sethe follows. It changes her paradigm, her determinants of salience. She knows what she has to keep her children from - returning to Sweet Home because she is holding together the memories of both her past existence there and her present existence at Baby Suggs. Her action arises out of her liminal experience because, containing within her the knowledge of both lives, she sees schoolteacher's hat, as he comes to recapture her. That sight indicates that Sethe is no longer free or yet re-enslaved. She moves to kill her children in a liminal space, where that action is logical only because she is outside both the enslaved and the freed frameworks of logic. If Sethe were acting based on an understanding of herself as a full human being, her action would be illogical. To possess full human dignity, and be able to act accordingly, presupposes that one's children will not be taken from you, that you will not be enslaved, and that if such things happened, they would be wrong, or illegal, or punishable. If Sethe was acting based on an understanding of herself as a slave, and her children as slaves by definition, her action would be illogical - and that action is irrational, from the point of view of the men who come to take her. Because she is no longer free - schoolteacher is there at the gate - but not enslaved, she can act outside the logics of either of those frameworks. In killing her daughter, Sethe acts based on a bifurcation of consciousness that makes fluid for her what are unquestioned propositions for others. Her transformation of consciousness is based on acting outside the logic of her oppression through her liminality, her memory of herself in at least two different worlds.


I have articulated an understanding personal transformation and identity that differs from Susan Babbitt's understanding of identity. The understanding I offer of selfhood as multiple and liminal, following Lugones, is a model that seems to me to more closely capture the way consciousness arises, and how it can come about in relation to dominant, and most often oppressive, ideologies and realities. It fleshes out the nuances of the movement from the impossible to the possible. There is a strong resonance, though, between Babbitt's articulation of self-change, where the participants in change are affected by the social and political environment around them, and in turn make possible actions and identities that were not possible before, and Lugones' understanding of the formation of liberatory consciousness. This is to say, as Babbitt does35, that perhaps certain selves develop in spite of their seeming impossibility, and that their development makes imaginable conditions of full human flourishing, for all sorts of people. It just may be that that development is not the result of unitary selves' transformation ahead of their reality, but rather a result of several self-understandings' liminal interaction.

Babbitt, p. 40
[2]Babbitt, p. 43-48
[3] Babbitt, p. 43
[4] Toni Morrison, Beloved. (New York, NY: Plume/Penguin, 1998) p. 149
[5] Morrison, 1998 p. 162
[6] Morrison, 1998, p. 164
[7] Babbitt, p. 13-48.
[8] Babbitt, p. 104-129
[9] Marìa Lugones. "Playfulness, `World'-Travelling, and Loving Perception" in Women, Knowledge, and Reality. Ed Ann Garry & Marilyn Pearsall (New York, NY. Routledge, 1992) p. 275-292
[10] Lugones, 1992, p. 283
[11] Lugones, 1992, p. 283
[12] Babbitt, p. 37-60 and 77-80
[13] Babbitt, p. 104
[14] Babbitt, p. 105
[15] Babbitt, p. 116
[16] Christine Korsgaard. "Personal Identity and Unity or Agency: A Kantian Response to Parfit" in D. Kolak and R. Martin, eds Self and Identity
[17] Korsgaard, p. 324
[18] Korsgaard, p. 324
[19] Korsgaard, p. 324
[20] Babbitt, p. 35
[21]María Lugones, "Structure/Antistructure and Agency under Oppression," Journal of Philosophy, 1990, p. 503
[22] Sandra Harding, Whose Science? Whose Knowledge? Thinking from Women's Lives. (Ithaca: Cornell
University Press, 1991) p. 275
[23] María Lugones, 1990, p. 500
[24] Lugones, 1990, p. 501
[25] Lugones, 1990, 501
[26] Lugones, 1990, p.. 502
[27] Lugones, 1990, p. 503
[28] Lugones, 1990, p. 503
[29] Lugones, 1990, p. 501
[30] Lugones, 1990, p. 505
[31] Lugones, 1990, p. 504-505
[32] Lugones, 1990, p. 506
[33] Lugones, 1990, p.. 505
[34] Walker, p. 163-164
[35] Babbitt, p. 174

Works Cited

Babbitt, Susan. Impossible Dreams: Rationality, Integrity, and Moral Imagination. (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1996)
Harding, Sandra. Whose Science? Whose Knowledge? Thinking from Women's Lives. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991)
Korsgaard, Christine. "Personal Identity and Unity or Agency: A Kantian Response to Parfit" in Daniel Kolak and Ray Martin, eds Self and Identity (New York, NY: Macmillian Publishing Company. 1991)
Lugones, María , "Structure/Antistructure and Agency under Oppression," Journal of Philosophy, 1990
-- "Playfulness, `World'-Travelling, and Loving Perception" in Women, Knowledge, and Reality. Ed Ann Garry & Marilyn Pearsall (New York, NY. Routledge, 1992)
Morrison, Toni. Beloved. (New York, NY: Plume/Penguin, 1998)

* Alexis Shotwell
Ph.D. Candidate
History of Consciousness Board
Oakes College
University of California, Santa Cruz

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