Philosophy and Gender

I’m putting the final touches on my Philosophy and Gender course. This is a new one for me. In the past, I’ve taught Feminist Philosophy, but I’ve never taught a course on gender broadly construed. Of course, I leave out some classic pieces due to time constraints. I also rely on excerpts instead of larger texts since this is an intro level course–the majority of my students will take this to satisfy a gen ed philosophy course–and is intended to be a survey. The course schedule is below.

This course will explore philosophical issues relating to sex, gender, and sexuality as considered by historical and contemporary philosophers and other associated theorists. Recent work by feminist philosophers will be emphasized.

Dear readers, do you see any major omissions? Put differently, do you feel like there are some “must reads” that I have failed to put on the reading list? Or, perhaps you think the list is good and might want to point out some assignments or discussion points to accompany the readings. (One thing I’m trying to incorporate is a few in-class skype interviews between the students and scholars. Let me know if you are interested in participating.)

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Žižek Trouble

Further to Adam’s post, I want to briefly sketch why I think it is that Žižek so commonly and consistently fails to think well or carefully about the issues he dismisses as ‘identity politics’ – questions of racism, sexism, transphobia and so on and so on. I don’t think these failings can be lightly dismissed as incidental to his work; actually I think they’re deeply revealing of some major problems with his intellectual project as a whole.

Following what Adam refers to as Žižek’s ‘middle period’ (around 1993-1996), his work is consistently characterised by a trinitarian ontology in which three levels – the material, the individual, and the social – are each constituted around a central antagonism. For the material world, this central antagonism is that of quantum uncertainty; for the individual this central antagonism is sexuality and gender; and for society this antagonism is that of class. Žižek claims that at the heart of this materialism is the assertion that what emerges later retroactively changes that which precedes it – so that consciousness emerges, for example, from the material processes of the brain and yet come also to form those processes; and ideas emerge from the material practices of the community and yet subsequently reshape them. And yet, for all that, Žižek is consistently unable to articulate or engage with the possibility of intersections between these three fundamental levels of reality. I think this inability is at the core of his failures to think well about issues of gender and race, which emerge in the kinds of grim racism, sexism and transphobia which seem to have been increasingly on display in his public statements.

It’s not that Žižek doesn’t talk about gender – questions of gender and sexuality are persistently present throughout his work. For Žižek, gender and sexuality are the ways in which ontological inconsistency manifests itself at the level of the individual. The individual comes into being around a sense of incompleteness which is also the condition of their existence as such, and the desire for a return to completeness manifests in fantasy as the longing for the lost union with the mother figure or the belief that completeness may be attained by union with the beloved other who has the objet petit a, the missing piece which will make the individual complete. Human gender and sexuality play out, for Žižek, around this sexualised quest for completeness. And yet nowhere in Žižek’s work does he engage with, for example, the idea that social distinctions between men and women function not only to sustain or create sexualised fantasies of completion but also class distinctions and the distribution of wealth.

Likewise, I want to suggest that the lack of any significant engagement with questions of of racism, whiteness or colonialism in Žižek’s work is the result of the fact that, for him, race is a fundamental category neither of material being, individual subjectivity nor the social order. There simply is no place for thinking racialisation within Žižek’s dialectical materialist framework. The closest he gets to making space in his work for a discussion of issues of race is as an ideological displacement of class struggle. This is what happens, for example, in his discussion of European anti-Semitism: within the fantasy of Europe it is not the inherent antagonism of class struggle which holds back the dream of a properly harmonious society but the figure of the Jew which functions as a scapegoat.

These absences in Žižek’s work aren’t simply because he doesn’t care about racism, or about the work of Marxist feminists or black communists, though I don’t think I want to suggest that that isn’t the case. They arise from the basic structure of his thought which, divides the world into three fundamental levels – material, individual and social – and which understand each level as more or less discrete, constituted in part by their interactions with each other – though this affirmation of their mutual interdependence tends not to show itself in Žižek’s actual analysis of each – but much more fundamentally by their own internal antagonisms, their dialectical structure. For change to occur, on this account of things, it must arise from the materialist dialectics occurring within each level. Žižek constantly draws parallels between these three levels of reality, yet what he insists on is likeness, analogy, resemblance, rather than interaction, intersection or interdependence. All of which is to say that Žižek’s failures to think well or carefully about racism and sexism aren’t just incidental features of his work: they reflect some of the fundamental, ontological inadequacies of his project as a whole.

Some thoughts on Homeric gender politics

Iliad

It’s almost too obvious to say that the Homeric epics are misogynist. What strikes me is how systematically misogynist they are, how they have to keep repressing a feminine element that always threatens to resurface. Sometimes it does, most dramatically when Hecuba bares her breast in an attempt to dissuade Hector from rejoining the battle, more mundanely when the soldiers chide each other for being womanly.

Every story that is, on the face of it, about the relationship between a man and a woman is displaced into a story about a rivalry between two men or about the loyalty between two men. The presenting issue in the Iliad combines both moves: Helen is induced to be unfaithful to her rather unimpressive husband, Menelaus, but this marital tension is displaced into a rivalry between Menelaus and Paris (abortively staged in Book 3) and then of course balloons into an international conflict lasting a decade. Achilles’ apparently sincere love for his war captive, Briseis, quickly becomes fodder for rivalry with Agamemnon. This does not explode into violence due to party loyalty, but Achilles can only join back into the captive after the death of his beloved comrade Patroclus (male loyalty) opens up a more serious male rivalry with Hector. That then sets up the uneasy truce between Achilles and Priam — where two men, united in their grief over men, call a temporary halt to the war started over a woman.

This aggressively homosocial gender politics may work in war, but it starts to fall apart when we turn back toward home in The Odyssey. And that incoherence is brought to a head in the figure of Penelope. On the one hand, Homer seems to be trying to set up some kind of tension through the constant reminders of Agamemnon’s fate — will Penelope really be faithful, or will Odysseus be betrayed? On the other hand, there are only two ways for a human woman to be: either utterly devoted and submissive or maliciously traitorous. (Helen shuttles back and forth, but at any given moment she is either one or the other.) At times this strains credulity, as when we learn how happy Briseis was at the prospect of becoming the lawfully wedded wife of her husband’s murderer, or what Penelope exults after Telemachus basically tells her to shut up because he’s the man.

There is no room for a woman who is seriously torn, though Penelope sometimes come close. Unable to give her a complex internal life, Homer instead puts her into a complex situation where she can’t be sure whether her husband is dead or alive. If we ask why she doesn’t simply tell the Suitors to leave, the simplest answer is probably that if she did that, she wouldn’t be a proper submissive woman — open wilfulness, even in the service of faithfulness to her husband, is breaking the rules. Her only weapon is passive-aggression, exemplified by the burial shroud trick.

In the later epic tradition, it is the women who start to get what we moderns would identify as a complex interior life — above all the impressive figures of Medea and Myrrha, who are faced with a genuine internal conflict (whether to betray her father for Jason and whether to seduce her own father, respectively). As for the men, we see profound depths of emotion — to a point that is almost comical from a modern perspective at times, or at least from the perspective of impatient student readers who are tired of all the crying — but never real depth of character. The price they pay for their relentless repression of the feminine is being stuck at the surface of things.

Feminism, Trans Visibility, and Gender Politics in Theology

Just yesterday Women in Theology announced a cohort of new contributors to their blog. Reading through the biographies I was very excited to see women from a variety of disciplines speaking into theology, including a colleague of mine! When Women in Theology started a number of years ago, I was still active in the theo-blogging world, and it was like a breath of fresh air in a virtual space that tended to extend the old-boys-club atmosphere of theology rather than make space for other voices.  Over the years, the exceptional thinkers at Women in Theology have addressed concerns of racism, violence against women, Islamophobia, and many other forms of oppression that continue to operate both explicitly and covertly in theologies, church institutions/schools, and worshiping communities. I commend them for this.

When the call for contributors was posted a few months ago, I considered sending in an application and encouraged friends to apply. The first person I thought would be a perfect contributor on the blog was a friend and fellow academic in theology. The call specified the following: “In order to qualify, you must be a woman with experience in the academic study of Christian theology-either as a graduate student or as a professor-and committed to the liberation of human persons, particularly women, from all forms of oppression. […] Women of color, international scholars, non-Catholic Christian women, and those who do comparative theology are especially encouraged to apply.” Unfortunately, my colleague did not qualify as a contributor – because my colleague, while they would identify as many of the above, does not identify as a woman. My colleague identifies as genderqueer. Read the rest of this entry »

Higher ed and masculinity

It is well known that when straight adolescent males are put into a gender-segregated setting, a vicious cycle begins wherein they will egg each other on to ever more extreme performances of masculinity. These performances necessarily entail the objectification and degradation of women. We can see these dynamics even in gender-segregated “nerd” subcultures such as science fiction or video game fandom, where women routinely complain of harrassment. Yet it is above all the case where the purpose of the group is directly and explicitly to bond over displays of masculinity — such as sports teams and fraternities. These types of groups are proverbially given to destructive behavior, and when women are added to the mix in a setting where the male group sets the agenda (i.e., a frat party as opposed to a classroom), the situation can easily become very dangerous for the women involved. It’s not by accident that horrific stories of gang rape in the United States are almost always tied to frat parties and althletic teams.

It’s also not by accident that colleges and universities are such breeding grounds for rape, because colleges and universities strongly promote the formation of such groups and stake much of their identity on them. Fraternities remain the primary site for the type of social networking that is the real purpose of college for upper-class and self-consciously upwardly-mobile students, whereas athletic teams provide an ongoing bond with alumni and the broader community. Hence colleges and universities grant considerable leeway to fraternities, and they spend millions of dollars on athletics, to the extent that one can say that athletics are objectively much more important on many campuses than the academic program.

Many critics of higher ed rightly point out the waste of resources on athletics as compared to academics, but the problem is even worse: by promoting such groups, universities are virtually guaranteeing that rape will be a routine part of campus life. They are not merely letting themselves be distracted from their primary academic mission — they are creating a situation where women, who now form the majority of the student body on most campuses, are put in serious danger. The fact that administrators so routinely cover up rape cases or try to convince the victim not to press charges is a kind of backhanded admission of complicity, of awareness that taking the problem seriously would mean calling into question the primary forms of social bonding and solidarity that have formed the university community and guarantee continued loyalty across generations.

Zizek and “sexual difference”

I’ve long found Zizek’s development of the Lacanian opposition between the logic of the master signifier or constitutive exception and the logic of the non-all (or non-whole, as I wish he would translate the Lacanian pas-tout) to be a compelling and useful schema. At the same time, I’ve never really understood why he is so insistent on referring to this opposition as “sexual difference” or why it is necessary to refer to the master signifier and non-all as masculine and feminine, respectively. He uses many other examples that follow the same logic — in Less Than Nothing, the relationship between bourgeoisie and proletariat is explained in these same terms — and it’s not clear to me why the gendered language should be privileged.

The best explanation I can come up with is his loyalty to the psychoanalytic tradition, where “sexuality” comes to name the fundamental derangement of the human animal (as opposed to any notion of a “natural” procedure of reproduction, etc.). And it’s possible that I’m being an overly squeamish feminist and not following my own rule that generalizations refer fundamentally to social forces rather than to the idea that “they’re all like that.” But still.

Any thoughts?

Wovon man nicht sprechen kann…

A colleague of mine once said that among white students, discussions of race tend toward silence, while discussions of gender tend toward anger. This sounds right to me, and certainly these reactions are not limited to white students. It seems to me that both phenomena share a common root: discomfort with any kind of generalization. Read the rest of this entry »