Listening to Non-Ideal Theory


This activity is a way to facilitate discussion about Charles Mills’ The Racial Contract by drawing out the implications of listening to different kinds of voices. Students are assigned to read a passage from The Racial Contract and to listen to one podcast episode, as a way to prepare for this in-class activity. The podcast episode provides a series of concrete examples of the racial contract that dramatize the stakes of non-ideal theory, especially in relation to the settler nation states of Canada and US America.

Background Information

There’s an existential challenge to teaching (and learning) Mills’ non-ideal theory, which has to do with the ways in which it affects students differently. As Mills puts it, “Certain kinds of wrongness will not present themselves as such” to those who over-idealize the workings of justice (2015, 544). Some students may be so gripped by idealizing approaches to justice that Mills’ argument must upset their very sense of rightness. Other students, conversely, may be all too familiar with the violence of the racial contract (violence that they may well experience in the classroom, as well as beyond the university). Instructors face the task of introducing the material to everyone, while also making space for differing responses to Mills’ argument and to its significance as critical philosophy.

There’s also a conceptual challenge, which has to do with the fact that norms can be put into place without ever having to be spoken about as such: it may feel natural, perhaps even universal, to those who conform to a given norm, but to those who experience its exclusions and violence, a norm can enact a double injury when it isn’t recognizable as unjust by those who perpetuate it. Here’s how Mills puts this challenge: those who convey the wrongness of such violence are “over-idealizing” the workings of justice. They are abstracting away all of the various specifics by which the wrongness, violence, and exclusionary norms are being (re)inforced. And they are affirming a false universality to norms.

This activity seeks to address both of these challenges by turning the class’s attention to a set of concrete examples. This allows every student to ponder their own responses to Mills’ argument, while also staging a productive conversation among the students.  

Courses and topics

  • Critical Race Theory/Critical Philosophies of Race
  • Ideal/Non-Ideal Theory
  • Continental Philosophy
  • Violence, Ideology, Settler Colonialism

Assigned Texts

  • Assigned reading for the lesson:  Charles W. Mills, The Racial Contract (Cornell University Press, 1997, pages 41-89).
  • Assigned listening for the lesson:  “Masters in our own home,” episode 1 from the “Powerline” series, Outside/In podcast.

Additional Texts for Instructor (Optional)

  • Charles W. Mills, 2015. “The Racial Contract revisited: Still unbroken after all these years,” Politics, Groups, Identities 3(3): 541-557.

For reading on the double injury effected by the racial contract: 

  • Claudia Rankine, 2014. Citizen. (Graywolf Press).

For reading on the racializing implications of listening:

  • Jennifer Lynn Stoever, 2016. The Sonic Color Line: Race and the Cultural Politics of Listening (New York University Press)
  • Nina Sun Eidsheim, 2014. “The Micropolitics of Listening to Vocal Timbre,” Postmodern Culture 24(3).

For reading on critical indigenous approaches to “liberalism”, see:

  • Audra Simpson, 2014. Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life across the Borders of Settler States (Duke University Press).


While we make use of listening skills in the classroom all the time, we don’t always pause to reflect on the significance of listening.  Especially in the context of critical race theory and critical philosophy of race, there are tremendous stakes to how we “listen”:  how we hear (or don’t hear) the sonic forms of racialized phenotypes, in the form of accents or timbre or cadence.  Listening, in other words, is a way in which the racial contract renews itself. But it can also be a way in which the racial contract is rendered suspect, unjust and open to resistance and transformation. This activity draws students into “listening,” in part by playing part of a podcast episode in class, and it invites students to tune into their own listening habits.

Here are the over-arching questions for this activity: 

If idealizing justice means to imagine justice as universal, then what does it mean to affirm justice in non-idealizing, non-ideal ways?  Given that specific ideals tend to govern classrooms, public media and daily conversations, how can we relate to these ideals in ways that draw out and undermine their exclusionary or overly-normalizing dynamics?


It’s an excellent idea to prepare a handout, based on the excerpts from the podcast episode included below.  It’s also a great idea to cue up the short excerpt of the podcast episode that will be played in class so that the activity goes smoothly.

Activity Plan

This activity has three stages.  First, the instructor leads the class in an initial or provisionary discussion about the assigned reading by Charles Mills.  The basics of the argument are laid out and clarified (ie. what is the key distinction between “ideal” and “non-ideal” theory? How does non-ideal theory challenge the presuppositions and practices of the racial contract?).

Second, the conversation shifts to the concrete examples found in the assigned podcast episode, “Masters in our own home,” from Outside/In’s Powerline series, “Masters in our own home.”  It’s strongly recommended to include the following excerpts of five conversations from the episode in a handout so that students can recall important moments in the script, dialogue and editing.  (Note that the first four excerpts are from the assigned podcast episode, “Masters in our own home.”  The fifth excerpt is from the podcast segment that will be played in class).   

Excerpts to include on a handout

Context of the Powerline series:  Massachusetts was going to cut their carbon emissions, and the Energy Secretary was allowed to set the target at 25%.  Something was missing from this ambitious plan: 5% came from a new powerline.  Which would come from Hydro Quebec.   Quebec has the lowest electricity costs in North America, and it’s located right beside the northeast of the US, which has the most expensive.

  1. Conversations with Americans:

Sam Evans-Brown: [00:02:56] But the debates, down here at least has mostly been about the powerline itself. The dams, the source of the electricity, are so far away. It's like they're not even real to the people here in New Hampshire. They're symbols on a map. They're pieces on a chessboard. And talking about this project talking about the power line without talking about the electrons that would flow inside of it. It's a little bit like debating train tracks without ever talking about trains or having an argument about what's the best kind of sandwich without ever discussing what's inside.

  1. Conversations with Anglo folks in Montreal:

Sam Evans-Brown: [00:11:35] I spent an hour or so wandering around a park in Montreal just asking random people about the company.
Anglo voice: [00:11:40] Yeah I'll talk to you what you want to hear good things, bad things?
Sam Evans-Brown: [00:11:43] And I'm generalizing here but right away I noticed something a little unusual. Like most Americans I know, Montreal's English speakers didn't really give much thought about what makes it lights turn on.
Anglo voice: [00:11:55] The fact that you're asking me to question. I'm thinking that it's something that I should have thought about.
Anglo voice: [00:12:04] To be honest with you, I don't know what hydro power is.
Sam Evans-Brown: [00:12:06] To them, Hydro-Quebec is the name of the top of their electric bill. Like the water company, or the sewer bill. They don't it much thought.
Anglo voice: [00:12:13] One thing I like about them is that in the winter if you don't pay them they don't cut your hydro off. Because you might die. So they leave it on.
Anglo voice: [00:12:23] Whoo... I sound stupid.
Sam Evans-Brown: [00:12:25] No, no, but it's true, like, you don't think about it, right?
Anglo voice: [00:12:28] No, I take it for granted.

  1. Conversations with Francophone folks in Montreal:

Sam Evans-Brown: [00:12:30] Francophones on the other hand, the French speakers I spoke to, they had a different take.
Francophone voice: [00:12:36] Je pense que c’est un joyau que nous avons le Hydro-Quebec.
Sam Evans-Brown: [00:12:40] He says that Hydro-Quebec is a jewel.
Francophone voice: [00:12:43] Ah, mais la compagnie est très bien vu. [Ouis?] Ouis, ouis, on a... c'est une fierté Québécoise quand même.
Sam Evans-Brown: [00:12:49] She says the company is very well regarded and that it's a matter of Québécois pride.
Hannah McCarthy: [00:14:34] There was a report written by a colonial governor that called French Canadians, "a people without history or culture," and recommended assimilating them.
Sam Evans-Brown: [00:14:43] In short there is a long history of the Quebecois feeling like they were being treated like a problem and generally discriminated against.
Caroline Desbiens: [00:16:43] There is that sense of being the colonized….  Being relegated to least desirable sector.  [Levesque had this idea of] this process that, I guess, people have referred to as decolonizing the energy sector….  [00:19:14] That slogan, "masters in our own house," it captured the spirit, it built momentum.

  1. Conversations about the Settler context:

Louis Archambault: [00:28:17] What they have done was first of all immoral, and two it was unconstitutional illegal totally illegal.
Caroline Desbiens: [00:28:27] We deploy the same arsenal that we were rebelling against, those words that were sort of the spearhead of the Quiet Revolution, masters in our own house, were pronounced on Innu territory.
Louis Archambault: [00:28:42] They tried to make a sweet deal with the Innus to buy their rights for basically nothing.
Caroline Desbiens: [00:28:50] The Quebecoise themselves in their process of becoming masters in their own house were dispossessing indigenous peoples of their own house.

  1. Conversations about the Indigenous context:

When Hydro-Quebec began dam construction, they did so without the consultation or permission of the Pessamit.  Their traditional territory—the land and water they roamed across before and during the ‘colonial’ period—spans more than 53,000 square miles. Their reservation, the land set aside by the settler state, is less than 100 square miles.

Third, after reviewing briefly the first four sets of conversations that are laid out on the handout, the instructor plays for the class the first five minutes of Part II of Outside In’s four-part Powerline series, “The Project of the Century”  (play from the beginning to 5:35). This will expand the scope of the conversations under consideration to include the voices of indigenous peoples. It will also allow the class to listen together, in real time, to audio, an experience that can facilitate more relaxed and open conversation in the classroom. 

Discussion Questions (optional)

Here are a set of discussion questions to ask, after reviewing the five podcast conversations.

  • We listened to five different sets of conversations in these podcast episodes.  What tensions did you hear that you think might demonstrate the tensions between “ideal” and “non-ideal” theory?  Be as concrete as you can, thinking especially about the differences between voices, perspectives and relationships to justice.  Whose voices did you immediately find convincing?  Can you discern why you found them particularly authoritative or persuasive?  Would you want to rethink your initial response to the “tape” of the podcast, after discussing Mills?
  • Identify one example of an “idealizing” approach to justice.  In this example, can you detect the symptom that Charles Mills describes as “the vanishing body”?  In cases of the Racial Contract, Mills writes, the individual is tacitly posited as the white adult male:  the body vanishes in this “disincarnate political theory,” but this disappearing act is an illusion (1997, 42).  How does the body vanish, in the example you’ve chosen, and what would you point to in order to demonstrate that this vanishing is actually an illusion?   
  • How critical do you want to be, and how critical do you think you should be, after studying Mills’ political philosophy, of the narrators of this podcast episode?  Do you think that this Powerline series is an example of non-ideal theory?  Why or why not?  How is the listener drawn into ideal or non-ideal theory here?  Do you think it depends on the listener’s own position, nationality, community and political commitments?