Sunday, March 12, 2006

Divisions, Scaffoldings

The divide between analytic and continental philosophy is in the process of being superseded (superceded if you'd rather) by feminism. There are naturally retentions, so one may speak of analytic feminisms or contintental feminisms, intersections between analytic and continental feminisms or intersections between pragmatist and continental feminisms and the like. By contrast academic philosophy has its ranks, overwhelmingly represented by males, overwhelmingly represented by a single philosophical metanarrative.

Academic feminism, which has gone by many names, is paradigmatically interdisciplinary, its necessity become a virtue. In the future feminism may also be known as "Western thought," "philosophy" or "logos" because the feminist discourses better exemplify all-embracing universal investigations of the self than the discourses which exclude women by dint of the way they narrate or imagine their own histories. At present, we simply acknowledge that these terms may be contested.

By treating the question "What kind of sexism is academic philosophy?" as if academic feminism were irrelevant, we may see signs that whatever it is today, it is not the same kind of sexism that it was a century ago. We may choose to speak of vestigial sexism, institutional sexism--though that too will require acknowledging historical discontinuities-- or hegemonic sexism, that is, sexism attributal to broader cultural realities which transcend philosophy as a profession, but inhere in philosophy departments because philosophers are, after all, bearers of culture. Hegemonic sexism is, in short, unexamined sexism. We might expect hegemonic sexism to wither away as the years go by, but it's improbable that academic philosophers will, en masse, be leading the way to more egalitarian, more self-critical ways of doing academia.

One of the issues that concerns me is the possibility of maintaining cultural ties between different generations of women thinkers. We might conceptualize this in terms of interpretive traditions, or more prosaically mentoring relationships, which will be instrumental to the institutional transformation of academic philosophy into something other than sexism. In that light, the picture of top ranking philosophy departments is not utterly bleak, not devoid of all hope. And yet, the frequency with which leading philosophy departments leave feminist thinking to affiliated faculty, visiting faculty, joint appointments and the like testifies to a weakness of commitment to women students.

I sometimes find myself wondering what happened to the students of Grace de Laguna, whom I've mentioned a few times. I wonder what her students did with what they learned. De Laguna taught at Bryn Mawr College, a women's college in Pennsylvania. Her (rather more influential) daughter Frederica attended Bryn Mawr, but chose to pursue a career in anthropology, recieving her Ph.D from Columbia under Franz Boas and Ruth Benedict. This was round about the time Harvard denied a petition to award an honorary degree to Mary Whiton Calkins, who had studied under William James and Josiah Royce.

Some people are likely to see the case of Calkins as evidence that things really were different then. Sure they were. But what was the historical impact of Harvard's sexism? Did it just suddenly come to an end? If the effects of an institution are so easily erased, we have no business calling it an institution. Surely the problem of sexism is a problem of generations.

I'm not overjoyed with this train of thought, feeling as if every step is getting off on the wrong foot. I'm neither an academic feminist nor an academic philosopher. This strikes me as a rotten disadvantage given my current interests, though I'm not sure why it should be, beyond missing the obvious sorts of qualifications to speak intelligently to the issue. (Lack of qualifications has yet to stop me from blogging.)

If this sort of thing interests you, the future of thinking that is, take a look at Julia Kristeva's address to the Modern Language Association, translated into English as Thinking in Dark Times. A selection (with some minor editing):

If it is true that the "intellectual" bases his thought in the human sciences, what is his place and his possible power in our troubled world as we enter the third millennium?

In taking over from theology and philosophy, the humanities replaced the "divine" and the "human" by new objects of investigation: social bonds, the structures of kinship, rites and myths, the psychic life and the genesis of languages and written works. We have acquired an unprecedented understanding of the richness and risks of the human mind; and this understanding disturbs, meets with resistance and censorship. Still, as promising as they are, the territories thus constituted fragment human experience; heirs to metaphysics, they keep us from identifying new objects of investigation. But the crossing over of these compartmentalized fields does not in itself suffice to reconstruct the new humanism we need. What matters is that from the outset the thinking subject connects his thought to his being in the world through an affective, political and ethical "transference." My practice as a psychoanalyst, my novel writing and my work in the social domain are not "commitments;" rather these activities are an extension of a mode of thinking I look for and which I conceive as an energeia in the Aristotelian sense: thinking in action, the actuality of intelligence.

Moreover, in my experience, the interpretation of texts and behavior, notably in the light of psychoanalysis, opens up a new approach to the world of religion. The discovery of the merely unconscious by Freud showed us that far from being "illusions," while nevertheless being illusions, different beliefs, religions and other forms of spirituality shelter, encourage or exploit specific psychic movements, which allow the human being to become a speaking subject and either a seat of culture or conversely, a center of destruction. To cite just a few examples, I’ll mention the importance of the law, the celebration of the paternal function, or the role of maternal passion in the child’s sensorial and prelinguistic scaffolding.1 My work as an analyst has convinced me that when a patient is committed to psychoanalysis, he is coming to ask for a kind of forgiveness, not in the sense of erasing his malaise but in the sense of finding psychic or even physical rebirth. It is the possibility of this new beginning, through transference and interpretation, which I call for-giveness: to give and to give oneself a new time, a new self, unforeseen ties. We can henceforth recognize the complexity of the interior experience that religious faith cultivates, but also bring to light hate which takes the guise of lovers’ discourse, as well as the death drive channeled to political vengeance and merciless wars in the same religious context.

A new conception of the human is thus in the process of being constituted with contributions from the fields in which we work, the new "humanities," where transcendence is immanent. This conception is synonymous with the desire for meaning, which is inseparable from the pleasure rooted in sexuality and which commands both the sublimity of culture and the brutality of acting out.

It is clear that today the intellectual is confronted with a difficult, historic task commensurate with the crisis of civilization: it is neither more nor less than a matter of coaxing this new type of knowledge to emerge progressively. We should not hesitate to use technical terms, but without reducing them to their strict meaning which is always too narrow. By positioning ourselves at the interface of these diverse "disciplines" we give ourselves the chance to clarify, even if only a little, that which remains enigmatic: psychosis, sublimation, belief, nihilism, passion, the gender war, maternal madness, murderous hate.

1 I believe the term "étayage" which Kristeva uses is the French rendering of Jerome Bruner's concept of "scaffolding." As a technical term, "étayage" is also associated with the ideas of Lev Vygotsky.

posted by Fido the Yak at 11:10 PM.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

paul says:
I don't think you need
ever be concerned about a 'lack of qualifications'...
What interests me is how the hell you find the time to do all this reading/thinking/researching. I wish I knew the secret of creating more than 24 hrs/day when leading a 'family' life...

March 13, 2006 4:05 PM  
Blogger Fido the Yak said...

Ha. I wish I had time to read Judith Butler's Giving an Account of Oneself or Jan Patočka's Body, Community, Language, World.

Right here, right now, my wife is sitting at her desk right next to mine and we've been yukking it up over Tom Swifties, he said expeditiously.

Levinas says that the immediate is not contact but the face-to-face. I will keep this in mind. Can't do otherwise. I have a working conceptualization of the intersubjective that organizes a whole lot of my recent thinking here. I don't have to continually rethink it, though I can rethink it. mostly. Calling up one aspect invokes the whole, as needed, or literally as it happens, because its retrieval is not so tidy as all that.

Anyway, I was reading Levinas on the crapper. That's part of the secret to finding time for the side-by-side, the face-to-face and the rest.

March 13, 2006 5:48 PM  

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