Category Archives: Feminism

‘Why de Beauvoir Matters’ @ the Ashmolean

Why de Beauvoir Matters with Dr Jonathan Webber (Cardiff University)
Wednesday March 20, 6pm,
Ashmolean Education Centre (St Giles Entrance)
Drinks and nibbles from 17.45
No booking required but please arrive early to ensure you get a seat.
Simone de Beauvoir is a major figure in twentieth century feminist thought. She is often portrayed as merely a follower and minor critic of Sartre, applying his existentialism to the question of gender. This talk will present a different picture. Her work on age and ageing, it will be argued, is significant both as a deep contribution to existentialist thought and as a stimulus to much needed theoretical reflection on this neglected topic.
Dr Jonathan Webber is Reader in Philosophy at Cardiff University. He is the author of The Existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre and the translator of Routledge’s edition of Sartre’s The Imaginary.

PETITION: Gendered Conference Campaign

Below is a message from Prof. Martin Kusch (U. of Vienna) that popped up on Philos-L, containing a petition in support of the Gendered Conference Campaign.  I’ve been following the development of this campaign for a little while via the New APPS blog, and it seems to me to be a worthwhile project. So please read the info, get informed, sign the petition – and of course act on it!

As you may know already, over the past few months a number of people in our field discussed — on various internet fora — the continuing underrepresentation of women as keynote speakers at conferences. A number of remedies were discussed but the one that ultimately found most support was the suggestion to organize a petition in support of the “Gendered Conference Campaign”.

You can find background to the idea of the petition here:

The petition itself is here:

A list of signatories to date is here:

I hope you will be able to sign too.

And if you do support the petition, please spread the word. This petition will only have a lasting effect in case it snowballs.

Two forthcoming conferences in the Nordic Countries

First up, on June 7th – 9th, the Nordic Society for Phenomenology (of which I’ve recently become a member) will hold its 10th annual conference at the University of Oslo. The programme looks good, with keynotes by Dermot Moran (University College Dublin), Frode Kjosavik (Norwegian University of Life Sciences, Ås), Komarine Romdenh-Romluc (University of Nottingham), Tetsuya Kono (Rikkyo University) and Thomas Schwarz Wentzer (University of Aarhus); and parallel sessions on:

  • phenomenology and psychology
  • phenomenology and perception
  • art and aesthetics
  • the body
  • time and place
  • self and consciousness
  • Husserl
  • Hannah Arendt
  • phenomenology and ethics
  • the challenge of ‘speculative materialism’
  • phenomenological reconsiderations of religion
  • phenomenology and life
  • varieties of phenomenology

Next up, on September 7th and 8th, the Nordic Network for Women in Philosophy is holding a conference at the University of Iceland on the question: ‘Has feminist philosophy changed philosophy?’  Here’s the blurb:

Feminist philosophy has emerged in the last decades as a vibrant field within Western philosophy. It has resulted in questioning canons of philosophy as well as core concepts of the philosophical curriculum. Feminist epistemology, ethics, aesthetics and metaphysics have contributed to a richer understanding of the epistemic, ethical, perceiving and embodied subject. The past and the present of philosophy as an academic discipline appear in a different light. Despite this, philosophy still has one of the lowest proportion of women and minorities among students and faculty when compared to other disciplines within the humanities and the sciences as a whole. Does that have to do with the lack of acceptance of feminist work within philosophy? Or is it necessary to dig deeper in order to understand the resistance of philosophy towards change in this respect? The keynote speakers at this conference, Sally Haslanger and Linda Martín Alcoff, have gained widespread attention for their writings on the institutional culture, content and styles of philosophy, as well as for their initiatives on improving the situation of women and minorities in philosophy. The NNWP calls for papers that discuss if, and if so how feminist philosophy has changed philosophy.

The CFP is still open on this one, so if you’ve got something to contribute you can submit abstracts (200 words) to Sigríður Þorgeirsdóttir at by May 25th.

There’s also the 20th International Conference of the Simone de Beauvoir Society coming up in Oslo in June, but I can’t seem to find the info for that right now… the page seems to have been deleted…

Future CRMEP events

There are quite a few events of interests coming up organised by the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy at Kingston University.

First of all, on the 18th and 19th of November, there’s the Society for Women in Philosophy UK annual conference on ‘Feminist Epistemologies and Philosophical Traditions’.

Next up is the inaugural joint research seminar of the CRMEP and the LLCP (Laboratoire d’études et de recherches sur les logiques contemporaines de la philosophie) at the University of Paris 8.  The seminar will be held in Paris, and will be on the theme of ‘Psyche and Philosophy’.

Back in London, on the 2nd of February, is Catherine Malabou’s inaugural lecture as Professor of Modern European Philosophy at the CRMEP (see the CRMEP’s list of research seminars for details).  The title of the lecture is ‘Continental Philosophy and the Brain: Towards a Critical Neuroscience’.

Finally, there are two workshops on the concept of transdisciplinarity:

  • the first, on the 22nd and 23rd of March (unfortunately clashing with a workshop on Nietzsche‘s ‘free spirit’ trilogy at Warwick organised by Keith Ansell-Pearson), focuses on two ‘transdisciplinary texts’, Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment and Deleuze and Guattari’s Capitalism and Schizophrenia;
  • the second, on the 17th and 18th of May, focuses on two ‘transdisciplinary problematics’, anti-humanism and gender studies.

Le Dœuff on philosophy, reciprocity and intellectual excitement

Today (or rather yesterday, since it’s passed 12 while I’ve been writing this), Michèle Le Dœuff delivered the first plenary talk of the SEP-FEP conference currently taking place at York St. John University.  It was an extremely good paper, eloquent in its expression and inspiring in its metaphilosophical vision, and so I thought I’d try to summarise some of the key points and bring out the things I thought were most interesting and worthwhile.

Before embarking on this summary, however, it seems worth mentioning that Le Dœuff is clearly a specimen of that all too rare species, an extremely insightful and sharp thinker who is nonetheless a pleasant and amiable person.  I shan’t offer any pop psychological musings on why intellectually sharp philosophers are so often, so it would seem to me, a bit emotionally stunted, if not downright vicious.  Suffice it to say that Le Dœuff is not such a philosopher.

Turning to her paper, then – Le Dœuff posed the question of what philosophy has to offer other disciplines, other domains or modes of knowing.  As a student of philosophy in France in the 1960s and ’70s, she recounted, interdisciplinarity – although the word was not yet part of the popular or academic discourse – was a ubiquitous feature of philosophical study.  It was standard practice, and looked upon warmly even in examinations, for philosophers to borrow widely from other disciplines.  This influx of extra-philosophical learning upon which French philosophers fed in the ’60s and ’70s was not the product of any enforced or institutionally organised policy of interdisciplinarity, but rather the product of a genuine intellectual excitement on the part of all involved parties, both those philosophers learning from their colleagues in other disciplines and those colleagues eager to pass on what they had learned to their interested friends in philosophy.  ‘Intellectual excitement’, she stated, ‘is the best vector of transmission’ for ideas.

In the mid-1970s, Le Dœuff claimed, new obligations were placed on academics, and where before it had been enough to do interesting and productive work, it was now a require to work in a team, ‘and that team had better be interdisciplinary!’  As such, interdisciplinarity entered academic discourse and at the same time took on the character of a demand from above for a particular regime of organisation of research.  This sort of enforced interdisciplinarity, along with the accompanying rigidity of organisation in research, is clearly something Le Dœuff reacts strongly against, and she will come back later in her paper to the distinction between this sort of interdisciplinarity, powered by external organising, and the informal interdisciplinarity, powered by intellectual excitement, which was such a dominant feature of the atmosphere of mainstream philosophy in France in the ’60s and early ’70s.

Le Dœuff attributed this attitude of interdisciplinary intellectual excitement to the atmosphere of postwar philosophy in France.  The war is crucial here.  According to Le Dœuff, it was WWII, the wisdom gained through the traumatic experience of war and occupation, and not any factor internal to philosophy, which led the senior figures of mainstream philosophy in France to an attitude of radical tolerance towards their students.  Students of philosophy in France in the postwar period were allowed a great deal of freedom in their intellectual interactions, and this facilitated the atmosphere of informal interdisciplinarity and shared intellectual excitement.

Part and parcel of this free interdisciplinarity was the lack of any felt need to ‘totalise’, a recognition that diverse interests could be entertained and explored without the need for any rigorous unification, since, after all, ‘life is multifold’ and need not be subordinated to any all encompassing schema or singular governing theme or interest.  This attitude too, Le Dœuff claimed, can be seen as a product of wisdom gained through the experience of war.  Among the generation of French philosophers who had experienced the war and who went on to become significant senior figures, there were many, notably Georges Canguilhem, whose involvement with the Resistance had been quite independent of their philosophical work.  (Although neither of them survived the war, the same gap between philosophical interests and political actions can be seen in the cases of Albert Lautman and Jean Cavaillès.  In both their cases and the case of Canguilhem, Badiou disagrees with Le Dœuff’s suggestion that their philosophies were quite independent of their political action; see Badiou’s Petit panthéon portatif.)

All in all, then, in the ’60s and early ’70s in France, philosophers had the feeling that to enclose their discipline was a pointless endeavour and ultimately one which would lead to the exhaustion of the discipline.  However, there were, Le Dœuff highlighted, despite all this tolerance, openness and shared intellectual excitement, ‘blocked’ questions.  Not necessarily repressed, but simply unasked, un-thought of.  One such question, and this is the question Le Dœuff went on to explore, was the question of what other disciplines have to gain from philosophy.  Philosophy clearly had a lot to gain from other disciplines, but could this process of learning be reciprocal?  How might philosophers’ naturally interdisciplinary intellectual excitement become reciprocal?

(Another such blocked question in the ’60s in France, Le Dœuff noted, was the question of the place of women in philosophy, but this isn’t something she went on to focus on.)

Le Dœuff posed an image of philosophy’s contribution to other disciplines which she suggested is rather common (she focused on science but I think analogous points could be made for other extra-philosophical disciplines), namely that of philosophy as correcting a discipline’s erroneous self-understanding.  So, taking the example of science: scientists’ work is not a-philosophical; it makes more or less explicitly or self-consciously philosophical claims; however, this extra-philosophical philosophy of scientists is ‘perfectly ideological’, and so requires the special expertise of philosophers to come and make sense of the scientific activity and the metaphysics it might be said to generate or support.  This is philosophy as spring-cleaning, then, as policing the bounds of sense, escorting deviants back to the proper path.

This is an image of philosophy as always beginning from error, as always called for by the need to correct erroneous thinking, a philosophy that requires that someone else be in the wrong.  ‘Is this the philosophy we want?’ Le Dœuff asked, and her answer was ‘no’.  In place of a philosophy beginning from others’ errors, she called for a philosophy that attends to their needs.  To explain this distinction and her reasons for siding with the latter side of it, she made a number of points.

Firstly, a philosophy which begins from the presumption of erroneous reasoning on the part of those working in another discipline is not sufficiently open to this other discourse to really hear it, to engage it in reciprocal and open dialogue.  For Le Dœuff, this is simply an expression of philosophy’s time-honoured arrogance.  As she later elaborated in response to a question from John Mullarkey, to enter into an interdisciplinary dialogue with epistemological or methodological preconception, with a pre-established set of criteria for the proper limits of meaningful interaction, is an absurdity.  Research, especially in philosophy, is about entering unfamiliar territory; to delineate the bounds of such research in advance is at best artificial and at worst impossible.  The demands placed on the encounter are not abstract criteria of sense or rigour but the intersubjective criteria of a mutually enriching intellectual exchange governed by genuine intellectual excitement.

An essential point here, then, is the unpredictability of problems, of the demands placed on thinking.  There is always the possibility of the unforeseen.  This is what makes any attempt to foreclose the limits of productive intellectual work in advance so potentially dangerous – once a programme of research has been resolutely dismissed it is painfully difficult to reconstruct, but we can never be sure that we will have no further use for it.

Having questioned the possibility and the desirability of a philosophy beginning from error, Le Dœuff gave a couple of examples of how philosophy might respond instead, and more positively, to need.  On the one hand, she spoke about the valuable work philosophers can do teaching in secondary schools (which is standard in France), particularly teaching those with no intention of continuing on to become specialists in philosophy.  In this setting, philosophers can encounter people with a desire, perhaps a need, for intellectual stimulation, and can help them by trying to convey and instill intellectual excitement.  No error need be presumed on the part of the young people involved, only a need for critical intellectual engagement.

On the other hand, Le Dœuff considered a more unusual example.  It is a well documented phenomenon – and certainly I’ve encountered it amongst people I know – that researchers (Le Dœuff specified ‘young men’) in the sciences can have a very intense enthusiasm for their work, and then an equally intense feeling of disenfranchisement and alienation from their work due to the division of labour and credit in scientific research.  This can lead to an anti-rationalist backlash and indeed, Le Dœuff suggested, participation in extremist religious groups and right-wing political organisations can result.  Philosophy here can play the role of providing these researchers with a background of more general issues into which their work feeds, which can help them to maintain a sense of the meaningfulness of their labour against its alienation by the fragmentary process of modern laboratory research.

So, in both these examples, we see philosophy offering a possibility for liberating and empowering thinking, fulfilling a felt need for critical engagement, meaning and intellectual stimulation, rather than policing other disciplines.

All this talk of what philosophy can offer other disciplines should not lead us to forget the strictly informal character of non-coercive interdisciplinarity that Le Dœuff had outlined earlier in her talk.  Perhaps, she suggested, what we need is a ‘wildlife reserve’ for those not keen on ‘organised’ teamwork, but wishing to pursue their own research in an atmosphere where interdiciplinary encounters are as occasional as one wishes and always informal, where ‘informal’ indicates that they come from reciprocal intellectual excitement and not from any institutional obligation.

Le Dœuff concluded her talk by asking us to consider what we can contribute, as philosophers, to the sort of non-coercive dialogue that might feed a free and mutual interdisciplinarity.  What do we have to offer those who might have need of that which we have to offer?

I think Le Dœuff offers a provocative challenge to a wide range of contemporary philosophy.  Rather than seeing philosophy as a challenge to complacency – a position which of course must presume a greater degree of complacency on the part of the extra-philosophical than on the part of philosophy itself – can we find a task for philosophy that encourages a more mutual understanding of its encounters with that which lies outside it?  How – and this is an issue I’ve stumbled across frequently in running the reading group which I organise in York – can we maintain an atmosphere of shared, informal intellectual curiosity and excitement without ‘organisation’ and its accompanying perceived hierarchies undermining this atmosphere, and without the all too prevalent philosopher’s game of combative argumentation and pointscoring kicking in?  These are difficult questions for those of us not happy with the present state – and particularly the present discursive atmosphere – of philosophy as a discipline.  This is not to say, of course, that I agree completely with Le Dœuff on these points.  But hers is certainly a powerful vision that ought to challenge us to think again about our metaphilosophical dogmas, however anti-dogmatic we might take them to be.

Deleuze and Guattari’s ambiguous relationship to neoliberalism

Reading Douglas Spencer’s contribution to the latest issue of Radical Philosophy, I was struck again by the unfortunate way in which Deleuze and Guattari’s work in their Capitalism and Schizophrenia project has come to reflect the present stage of global capitalism.  In his article, ‘Architectural Deleuzism: Neoliberal space, control and the “univer-city” ‘ (the beginning of which is available here), Spencer discusses the way in which Deleuze and Guattari’s concepts have been taken up by an architectural practice eager for a post-Derridean intellectual stimulus.  Inattentive to the critical political nuances of Deleuze and Guattari’s texts, however, this ‘architectural Deleuzism’ has read these concepts as an intellectualising vindication of the ‘progressive’ potential of the neoliberal expansion of market forces into all aspects of social reality.  Deleuze and Guattari’s vision of a ‘rhizomatic’ (as opposed to ‘arborescent’) practice of thinking and living – an opening up of reality and thought to its repressed potentialities, an exploration of and experimentation with what a body can do – becomes the philosophical alibi for the architectural (hence, spatial) production and promulgation of homo economicus and the ‘control society’ which Foucault and Deleuze respectively so keenly diagnosed and analysed.

This sort of (mis-/ab-)use of Deleuze and Guattari’s work isn’t just evident in the architectural sphere.  Spencer’s comments are remeniscent of those made by Eyal Weizman in an article for the May 2006 issue of Frieze, in which Weizman discusses the use of Deleuze and Guattari’s concepts by the military strategists of the IDF (here).  Israeli military commanders, it would seem, have found rhizomatic thinking to be a productive approach in their ‘security’ efforts.  Once against, Deleuze and Guattari’s diagnostics of mechanisms of psycho-social and spatio-temporal repression, disciplinarity and control, along with their (quasi-)anarchist vision of a ‘smoother’, more open, more creative and productive social reality have been co-opted as a philosophical validation and even a source of inspiration and innovation for some of the most aggressive control apparatuses of contemporary capitalism.

Why does Deleuze and Guattari’s work find itself at the centre of this unfortunate ambiguity?  We might seek to suggest that either the word or the spirit (or both) of their work has been misinterpreted so as to serve a political end with which it is quite out of sorts.  This would be to cast the relationship between Deleuze and Guattari’s work and neoliberal capitalism as analogous to that between Nietzsche’s work and National Socialism: a (possibly opportunistic) misappropriation of a thinker’s work through (more or less deliberate) misreading.

Such a suggestion doesn’t seem to cut the muster, though, the reason being that an understanding of the market as the subversive/progressive core of capitalism – working, in a sense, against the ‘reterritorialising’ force of capital itself – does seem to be a legitimate interpretation of Deleuze and Guattari’s work.  This is evidenced in Nick Land’s ‘accelerationism’, which, it seems to me, does bring out a genuinely present aspect of the Capitalism and Schizophrenia project, at least its first volume.  Even if accelerationism is something of a selective exaggeration or amplification, I don’t think it’s a distortion in the way that Elisabeth Förster’s ‘Nazification’ of her brother’s work and Nietzsche’s subsequent popular reception as a ‘totalitarian’ thinker was a distortion.

Perhaps, then, we can read Deleuze and Guattari’s relationship to neoliberalism analogously to the way in which Juliet Mitchell reads Freud on women and femininity in her 1974 Psychoanalysis and Feminism.  In that text, Mitchell argues that Freud’s supposedly conservative and chauvinistic comments on women and femininity are in fact an important diagnosis of the actual state of women in the contemporary social milieu.  If Freud’s theories paint a picture of women which feminists deem repugnant this is only to be expected, since Freud’s aim is to describe the state and genesis of feminine sexuality in a social context in which the latter is stifling and oppressive.  Far from engaging in a conservative affirmation of anti-feminist views of women, Freud is seen by Mitchell as doing important diagnostic work, and thus demonstrating the need for feminism more effectively than the more ‘radical’ work of R. D. Laing and Wilhelm Reich.

Can we read Deleuze and Guattari as offering a diagnosis, rather than an affirmation, of neoliberalism?  The problem here is that Deleuze and Guattari’s work, unlike Freud’s, is more clearly already distinguished into a diagnostic element and a prescriptive or affirmative element (although these two elements are not so straightforwardly separable as this abstract description will suggest).  On the one hand there is a diagnosis of the mechanisms of control which contain and channel the productive power of desire and drive, and on the other there is an affirmation of this power as the subversive kernel of these mechanisms, their immanent limit and the potential agent of their overcoming.  The problem, then, is that it is the latter which seems to ring true with contemporary neoliberal capitalism; that is, it is Deleuze and Guattari’s positive vision of a rhizomatic social space which seems to have been realised in neoliberal capitalism.

In Anti-Oedipus, Deleuze and Guattari painted a picture of the repression of productive desire through psycho-social neuroticisation and the containment of the free creativity of social production within the ‘axiomatic’ of capital.  Despite all the nuances of their picture it was, at base, a fairly simple dualism between deterritorialisation and reterritorialisation.  A Thousand Plateaus complicated matters a little further, but the fundamental dualism remained nonetheless.  Today the situation seems to have become more complicated, insofar as the two poles of this dualism appear to have been, as it were, ‘sublated’.  Today, the sort of language Deleuze and Guattari used in the 1970s and early 1980s to talk about the revolutionary power of desire bubbling beneath the surface of the global flow of capital has become largely indiscernable from the language of corporate capital itself, and so the emancipatory flavour of their words and concepts often seems to have dissipated.

The question is whether this is a sign of Deleuze and Guattari’s supreme prescience, and hence of the problematic character of this convergence of supposedly revolutionary deterritorialisation and capitalist reterritorialisation for capitalism itself.  If Deleuze and Guattari are right, and desire (in their anachronistic sense) is both the engine of capital and the spanner in the works, and if capitalism displays an inherent tendency to push the disintegration of social reality and organisation to its breaking point, then perhaps ever increasing neoliberalisation is as much of a threat to the stable persistence of global capitalism as it is to the billions of people hurt and exploited by capitalism around the world.  Certainly neoliberalism has made capitalism less stable, although this instability has often proved productive rather than destructive insofar as capital requires the perpetual or at least periodic creation of new markets in order to thrive; it has also thrown the exploitative character of capitalism into sharp relief and thus generated waves of resistance, more staunch the more virulently neoliberalism has been implemented.

All this raises further questions: Even if neoliberalism pushes capitalism to its limits, what is needed in order for those limits to be transgressed in a pernicious rather than productive way?  Will capitalism exhaust itself, or must it be pushed over the edge?  And who will push it?  Even if it will exhaust itself, what sort of social structures must we preparatively engineer if we are to capitalise on this exhaustion?

Despite the undeniably sharp edge of their critical diagnosis of capitalism and the originality of their synthesis of concepts from a myriad of fields, I’m doubtful as to whether Deleuze and Guattari can offer us satisfying answers to these latter questions, or at least, whether they can offer more satisfying answers than more traditionalist modes of radical left theory and practice.  A reappraisal of Marx’s economic insights and a politics of refusal and of taking and holding spaces (physical, social, virtual, conceptual) seem to me to be more likely avenues down which to seek a positive political future than the creative fluidity and openness of a ubiquitous sexuality.

SWIP UK – women-friendliness recognition 2011

The Society for Women in Philosophy UK has awarded its Women-Friendliness Recognition this year to the philosophy department at the University of Oregon.  The Oregon philosophy department

is the only program in the US that requires all its PhD graduate students and most of its MA students to take two courses in feminist philosophy during their time with us. The program is structured around the “four traditions”: Analytic, Continental, American and Feminist philosophy. The faculty is 40% female, and the graduate students are consistently around 50% female. The department is recognized in the NRC rankings as #3 in the nation in diversity. It is the home of the Feminist Philosophy Research Interest Group which is funded by the Center for the Study of Women in Society, a robust feminist research center at the University of Oregon…

I very much like this idea of ‘the four traditions’ as a model around which to structure teaching.  While it might well not be totally legitimate from a historiographical point of view (no need to rehearse here points about the heterogeneity of the continental traditions), it serves well the purpose of making sure that the programme covers a wide range of approaches and areas of philosophising, without ghettoising or sidelining vast swathes of contemporary and historical philosophy in the habitual manner.  That feminist philosophy be seen as a whole tradition in its own right and not simply a curious niche within other sub-disciplines seems a positive move. As is the recognition of a distinction between the ‘analytic’ and American traditions – I tend to think the latter is far more interesting and nuanced, and would do well to dissociate itself from its more domineering but less adventurous cousin.

Recognition has also been given to two philosophy departments for their women-friendliness iniatives:

  1. The University of Edinburgh, for their Women in Philosophy Group.
  2. The University of Michegan, for ‘proactive measures to improve gender balance in PhD students’.