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Value Claims: From Aristotle to Black Lives Matter

  • Author(s): Wolflink, Alena
  • Advisor(s): Mathiowetz, Dean
  • et al.
Creative Commons 'BY-NC-ND' version 4.0 license

This dissertation, “Value Claims: From Aristotle to Black Lives Matter,” explores claims to, of, and about value, the history of commercial activities from which they draw, and the imaginations of citizenship they underpin. I identify and mobilize a tension in value discourses between material and aspirational life, arguing that erasing this tension can entrench existing configurations of power and privilege, and that acknowledging the tension is a vital part of democratic practice. I use genealogical, conceptual-historical, and interpretive approaches, drawing from such diverse sources as Aristotle, Anna Julia Cooper, Michael Warner, and Jacques Rancière, to argue that the abstractions of value discourse in both economic theory and moral philosophy have been complicit in devaluing female, queer, and black life. I look at this history of value discourse as a means of contextualizing some of the ways that the language of value is used today to naturalize market processes and infuse them with particular moral meanings. I show, for instance, how value discourse can make “economic anxiety” appear to be a different problem from racial animosity. However, I further argue that value claims nonetheless hold democratic potential as a means of asserting and defining priorities—ones that center the role of political economy in citizenship.

Value claims, I argue, can play a role in not only delineating but also transgressing the boundaries of citizenship: in terms of both who and what are included in citizen activity. In other words, ideologies and social movements that mobilize the language of value and values define a citizenry with priorities, and with a particular view of the relationships between necessity, interdependence, and freedom. The practical stakes of my intervention are to shed critical light on the implicit claims and discursive work of those who claim the banner of value or values—from liberalism to Marxism, and from values voters to Black Lives Matter. For example, I contrast the Black Lives Matter movement’s use of the language of value with the queer rights movement’s use of the language of equality to show that value claims expose and establish priority. I offer value claims as an alternative mobilizing strategy for social movements that have historically focused on formal legal equality. In doing so, I contribute to a tradition of conceptual-historical analysis from Plato to Begriffsgeschichte and “keywords” scholarship, while foregrounding the role of racial narratives in political economic discourse.

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