Drucilla Cornell is a professor of law, women's studies and political science at Rutgers University. Prior to beginning her academic life, she was a union organizer for a number of years, working for the U.A.W., the U.E., and the I.U.E. in California, New Jersey, and New York. Cornell played a key role in organizing the conferences on Deconstruction and Justice with Jacques Derrida, held at Cardozo Law School in 1989, 1990 and 1993. In addition, she has worked to coordinate the Law and Humanism Speakers Series with the Jacob Burns Institute for Advanced Legal Studies and the Committee on Liberal Studies at the New School for Social Research. Cornell was porfessor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law from 1989-1994 and spend the 1991-1992 academic year at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. She has authored several books and numerous articles on critical theory, feminism and postmodern theories of ethics. She is also a produced playwright -- productions of her plays The Dream Cure and Background Interference have been performed in New York and Los Angeles.
"On Drucilla Cornell," by Sara Murphy
[Copyright 1998 Sara Murphy.]
Particularly in U. S. feminist theory, the values of equality and freedom have been frequently pitted against each other, creating a deadlock between a "formal equality" feminism and what is often termed a "difference feminism." In their attempts to adjudicate between the competing claims of equality and freedom, both of these positions, generally understood, have been accused of reinforcing and reifying culturally constructed gender binaries. In the Imaginary Domain (1995), Cornell seeks a way out of this deadlock. As always, her work situates itself at the crossroads of many disciplines: law, political philosophy, feminist theory, psychoanalysis But here she specifically seeks to establish a feminist alliance with John Rawls' Kantian constructivist project In effect, this involves rescussitating some categories that much post- structuralist thinking had presumed D.O.A. in the nineties: the person, privacy, and rights. Yet if Cornell is here breathing life back into a philosophical project that recent thinkers had deemed untenable, she is doing so in a way that takes these categories apart precisely by acknowledging their importance to any political dream of freedom, a dream that here begins with a reconception of the idea of the person.
Rather than understanding the person as a fixed, highly abstract entity upon which liberal thought rests, Cornell introduces the idea of the person as "a possibility, an aspiration which...can never be fulfilled once and for all" [The Imaginary Domain, 5]. Far from the stable entity presumed by the traditional subject of philosophy, this "person" is understood as an ideal for which we all struggle. But once this understanding is put into place, what becomes of the traditional categories through which political philosophy has defined the person: the distinction between public and private, for example, and the concept of rights? If we cannot begin by assuming the free person whom liberal political theory has historically envisioned as choosing to sign the social contract, argues Cornell, neither can we engage in a full-scale elaboration of the conditions of free personhood. What she does instead is argue for the "imaginary domain," space for "re-imagining who one is and who one seeks to become". The state cannot give us the freedom to transform ourselves; law cannot guarantee us the success of our struggle.
What law can do is ensure that everyone has an equivalent chance at that struggle to transform her or himself into a person. Cornell argues that in order to ensure that chance three conditions must be furfilled; she calls them "minimum conditions of individuation." The degree zero for the imaginary domain entails the protection of bodily integrity, access to symbolic forms, and the protection of the imaginary domain itself. In calling upon law neither to assume a person nor to establish the conditions and limits of personhood, but rather to preserve and protect the minimum conditions necessary for human beings to engage each in her own way the struggle for personhood, Cornell shifts the terms of debate in feminism, law, and cultural politics.
The Imaginary Domain takes up three specific zones of feminist political engagement: abortion, pornography, and sexual harassment. In each instance, it is shown how legal decision and cultural debate have stalled on questions of privacy and rights that pit freedom and equality against each other. For example, Roe v.Wade gave women the legal right to abortion based on a privacy argument; legal scholars have for some time argued that this is not especially good law because the grounds on which it was argued articulate women's right to control their bodies with the right to be left alone. Insofar as this is the case, Roe has, as recent attempts to overturn it demonstrate, been left open to assault. At what point does the legal protection of privacy end?
The short answer in this case is at the moment that one can no longer be "left alone" with an unwanted pregnancy. And since to varying degrees no woman is or can be left alone with any pregnancy, desired or not, the real question under Roe , becomes one of access to services and information: the poor woman relying on public clinics, the teenager who needs correct information and ethical guidance but cannot inform her parents of her pregnancy, the woman who finds herself in the tragic circumstance of contemplating late-term abortion all see their right to privacy evaporate. But if we understand abortion rights in terms of the imaginary domain, argues Cornell, the question becomes one of assuring the space in which each of these women can over time work through, clarify, struggle with her own experience of pregnancy, the deeply personal implications of deciding the fate of that pregnancy, and how this decision will shape and be shaped by her future life experiences. How each woman will do this is left to them and nothing about that process is guaranteed. But if the deciding factor in the legal understanding of abortion is the protection of the imaginary domain, with its founding conditions of possibility bodily integrity and access to symbolic forms, then in no case, the hypothetical ones above included, can legislation that selectively or generally bars women from access to abortion or information about it be considered justice.
Throughout her career, Cornell has been deeply influenced by the legacies of Critical Theory. In this book, and in the forthcoming At the Heart of Freedom which continues to develop the theoretical implications of the imaginary domain, she perhaps engages most directly with that inheritance. Provisionally we might map this engagement in at least two ways. First, the complex deconstruction of the divide between public and private implied by the imaginary domain suggests ways of reapproaching the broad problematic identified by Jurgen Habermas in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1962), that of the disappearance of a public sphere that once characterized modernity. Here, the problematic is inflected much differently; for not only, as many theorists have pointed out, did that eighteenth-century public sphere generally exclude all who were not white men of the emergent middle classes, but the division between public and private itself relies on a notion of legal and philosophical personhood that cannot spring us from the deadlocks now apparent in contemporary feminist or other identity-based politics. The second way in which the legacies of Critical Theory can be felt in this book is perhaps more subtle; at their best, the Frankfurt School theorists sought to avoid the sort of cynicism that is so pervasive in contemporary U. S. culture and politics. In her commitment to the possibility of an ideal, and to the endless work of theorizing that commitment, Cornell is carrying on that aspect of the tradition as well.
At the Heart of Freedom: Feminism, Sex, and Equality. Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, forthcoming.
Declaring Our Freedom: A Feminist Re-Thinking Sex and Equality. New York: Routledge, forthcoming.
The Imaginary Domain: Abortion, Pornography and Sexual Harrassment. New York: Routledge, 1995.
Feminist Contentions: A Philosophical Exchange. (with Seyla Benhabib, Judith Butler, and Nancy Fraser) New York: Routledge, 1994.
Transformations: Recollective Imagination and Sexual Difference. New York: Routledge, 1993.
The Philosophy of the Limit. New York: Routledge, 1992.
Beyond Accomodation: Ethical Feminism, Deconstruction, and the Law. New York: Routledge, 1991.
Feminism and Pornography. Oxford Univ. Press, forthcoming.
Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice. (with Michel Rosenfeld and David G. Carlson) New York: Routledge, 1992.
Hegel and Legal Theory. (with Michel Rosenfeld and David Gray Carlson) New York: Routledge, 1991.
Feminism as Critique: Essays on the Politics of Gender in Late-Capitalist Societies. (with Seyla Benhabib) Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987.
"Are Women Persons?" Animal Law 3 (1997).
"Dismissed or Banished? A Testament to the Reasonableness of the Simpson Jury," in Birth of a Nation'hood. Ed. Toni Morrison and Claudia Brodsky Lacour. (New York: Pantheon Books, 1997).
"Gender Hierarchy, Equality and the Possibility of Democracy," in Feminism and the New Democracy: Re-siting the Political. Ed. Jodi Dean. (Sage Pub, 1997).
"Re-Thinking Consciousness Raising: Citizenship, Law and the Politics of Adoption." The Spindel Conference -- Feminist Theory: The Southern Journal of Philosophy 1 (1997).
"Enabling Paradoxes: Gender Difference and Systems Theory." New Literary History 27 (Spring 1996).
"Feminist Challenges: A Response." Philosophy and Social Criticism 22 (1996).
"Response to Tom McCarthy." Constellations 2 (Oct. 1995).
"Bodily Integrity and the Right to Abortion," in Identities, Politics, and Rights. Ed. Austin Sarat and Thomas R. Kearns. (Univ. of Michigan Press, 1995).
"The Wild Woman and All That Jazz," in Feminism Beside Itself. Ed. Diana Lam. (New York: Routledge, 1995).
"Abortion and the Feminine Imaginary," in Human, All Too Human. Ed. Diana Fess. (New York: Routledge, 1995).
"The Imaginary Person." Common Knowledge 4 (Fall 1995).
"L'appel à la responsabilité juridique. L'exemple de l'affaire Roe contre Wade," in Le passages des frontieres: Autour du travail de Jacques Derrida. (Paris, 1994).
"From the Lighthouse: The Promise of Redemption and the Possibility of Legal Interpretation," in Gewalt und Geschlecht -- Derrida Liest Benjamin. (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1993).
"The Feminist Alliance with Deconstruction," in Dekonstruktiver Feminismus. Ed. Barbara Vincken. (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1992).
"The Violence of the Masquerade: Law Dressed Up As Justice," in Working Through Derrida. Ed. G.B. Madison. (Northwestern univ. Press, 1992).
"The Philosohpy of the Limit, Systems Theory and Feminist Legal Reform." New England Law Review (1992).
"The Relevance of Time to the Relationship Between the Philosohpy of the LImit and Systems Theory." Cardozo Law Review (1992).
"Gender, Sex, and Equivalent Rights," in Feminists Theorize the Political. Ed. Judith Butler and Joan Scott. (Routledge, Chapman and Hall, 1992).
"What Takes Place In the Dark." Differences (1992).
"Civil Disobedience and Deconstruction." Cardozo Law Review (1991).
"Gender Hierarchy, Equality, and the Possibility of Democracy." American Imago (1991).
"Sex Discrimination Law and Equivalent Rights." Dissent (1991).
"The Doubly Prized World: Myth, Allegory and the Feminine." Cornell Law Review (1990).
"Time, Deconstruction and the Challenge to Legal Positivism: The Call for Judicial Responsibility." Yale Journal of Law and Humanities. (1990).
"From the Lighthouse: the Promise of Redemption and the Possibility of Legal Interpretation." Cardozo Law Review (1990).
"Dialogic Reciprocity and the Critique of Employment at Will." Cardozo Law Review (1989).
"Post-Structuralism, the Ethical Relation, and the Law." Cardozo Law Review (1988).
"Institutionalization of Meaning, Recollective Imagination, and the Potential for Transformative Legal Interpretation." The Univeristy of Pennsylvania Law Review (1988).
"Beyond Tragedy and Complacency." Northwestern University Law Review (1987).
"Two Lectures on the Normative Dimension of Community in the Law." University of Tennessee Law Review (1987).
"Beyond the Politics of Gender," in Feminism as Critique. Ed. Drucilla Cornell and Seyla Benhabib. (Blackwell, 1987).
"In Union, A Critical Study of Toward a Perfected State." The Univeristy of Pennsylvania Law Review (1987).
"The Post-Structuralist Challenge to the ideal of Community." Cardozo Law Review (1987).
"Femininity, Negativity, and Intersubjectivity." Praxis International (1986).
"Convention and Critique." Cardozo Law Review (1986).
"Taking Hegel Seriously -- Selection on Beyond Objectivism and Relativism." Cardozo Law Review (1985).
"Toward a Modern / Post-Modern Reconstruction of Ethics." The Univeristy of Pennsylvania Law Review (1985).
"Should a Marxist Believe in Rights?" Praxis International (1984).
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