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Feminism

Today I started preparing the class on phenomenology I will be co-teaching the next six weeks. My colleague and I prepared the study program earlier, of course, and made the choice of texts, but now I am close-reading the text for the first session – which is tomorrow. A lovely text, although it bewilders me sometimes – or, wait – that is not a failing, but actually a positive point, that it bewilders!

The bewilderment follows from the space-in-between the text takes, explicitly: in between ‘methods’ or ‘approaches’ or ‘styles. Sara Ahmeds Queer Phenomenology is, in her own words, letting such things as queer theory and phenomenology ‘encounter’. Not dialogue with, not conflict, not fuse, not found each other – just ‘encounter’. I see other approaches encounter in her text also. A critical approach, where she brings in the experiences of migrants to dislocate the familiarity of phenomenological ideas of home. But also a deconstructive approach – and this intrigues me most – where she moves ‘the gaze’ (one can lend this word from Foucault here) from the table ‘around which’ Husserl and Heidegger weave their phenomenological reflections, to the table which we have to think to understand where the grand old men were coming from.

When reading her quotation of Heidegger, I am immediately plunged in the bourgeois world I know so well – as the ideal of home-making of my parents:

“What is there in the room there at home is the table (not ‘a’ table among many other tables in other rooms and houses) at which one sits in order to write, have a meal, sew, or play. Everyone sees this right away, e.g. during a visit: it is a writing table, a dining table, a sewing table – such is the primary way in which it is being encountered in itself.” (Ahmed, 45)

Nineteenth century bourgeois idealism, in which the wife sews at the sewing table, the guests gather around the dining table, or perhaps even the card table, and the philosopher secludes himself before and after the social events his wife prepares at the writing table in his study. So many tables! My parents, who had very little money when they married, were striving, while I grew up, to expand the number and diversity of their tables, and to replace the poor, second hand, ones by inherited antiques or newly bought design ones.

As a student, reading myself into women’s literature, I learned that ‘a room of one’s own’, or even a table of one’s own, the prerogative of the modern European intellectual or writer, were only rarely available to women. One of the best Dutch female writers of the early twentieth century, Carry van Bruggen, wrote her novels at the kitchen table. And Ahmed writes about her own writing table from that non-self-evidency when describing moving into a new house:

“There, that will be my desk. Or it could just be the writing table. It is here that I will gather my thoughts. […] On the tables, different objects gather. Making a space feel like home, or becoming at home in a space, is for me about being at my table.” (Ahmed, 11)

Is it a coincidence that just yesterday, talking to someone who has known me all the years that I have been writing and publishing, I memorized the tables where my (Dutch) books were written? The first one, my dissertation on Spinoza, was written on an early Atari computer, on a small white desk I had bought after moving into an appartment for the first time. The second, the book on nature in ethics, my most voluminous one, was written on a Windows computer, at the same desk, in the study corner of the small house where I lived next – with my back to the kids’ toys strewn around the room, as well as to the kitchen in the back. The third book, the small one on truth in religion and science,  was written at my parent’s old, discarded, forty years old ‘design’ table, in the attic of the somewhat larger house that came after. I worked on a laptop from then on, to save space – a thing still not very available. The fourth book, the philosophy of spirituality study book, was written in yet another house, a smaller one – at the same old table that was now the dining table, sewing table, and writing table – actually the only table. The fifth book, the one on spirits in modernity, I memorized, was written in the smallest room in the next house, almost feeling I had to apologize for occupying a room of my own, and the desk was now one I had purchased in the thrift shop for 15 euros – as the large old table of my parents was promoted to dining table once more…

And now, recently, I have moved my books and papers, to a spacious room I call my study, adorned even with the American desk of my grandfather, the desk that was the materialization of my father’s authority when I was young. The desk with the many drawers, even secret ones. The desk underneath which I hid as a toddler, feeling safe in the dark confined space between the colorful American wood. The most beourgois DSC_0008-2.jpgwriting space I have ever used… The first time I sat at it to work, I had the strange sensation to have changed places with my father – being the adult with the authority to speak now. But since I have it, I have not (yet) written a book. Is it a coincidence? Or is it because inhabiting this ‘male’ space as a woman, and not just sitting in a corner where I am not noticed, somehow eats my endurance in writing away? It might be just the adjustment, in which case my next book, the first one in English, will be written next year at my grandfather’s American desk. Or, if it doesn’t work, I will pick up my laptop and sit somewhere, at the dining table, or the attic, I don’t mind. As long as the writing keeps on flowing…

Quotations are from Sara Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology. Orientations, Objects, Others, of 2006. Durham & London: Duke University Press.

 

My mourned friend Malick, whose remembrance has just been celebrated, was an avid reader. He was an intellectual of the postmodern kind – not the nineteenth century one with a study and many books, but a traveller without much money, with regular access to an internet connection and ways to find what his mind needed. The reading choices he shared with his friends often surprised me, as they disclosed to me a web of intellectual wanderings from another world – and yet one which I could share. As a francophone West-African he read the French classics, which I only remembered from my school years, but among whom some had stirred more attention in me while studying philosophy – like Camus. More interesting to me however, was his probing into a world of revolutionary activists and thinkers, of whom I had mostly only faintly heard. Of course, in ‘the West’ (for lack of a better word I use this vague indicator of the US and Western Europe), Mandela and Che Guevara are fashionable revolutionary icons. But the African icons were less known to me: Amilcar Cabral, Patrice Lumumba, and Thomas Sankara.

When my curiosity brought me to research somewhat the one least familiar, Sankara, I found that he is not only known for the four year Marxist reign he exerted in Burkina Faso, untill his violent death, but also for his explicit promotion of women’s rights. Although of course Marxist movements have always inspired to a greater or lesser extent momevents for equal rights for men and women, I was struck by the insight of Sankara in some deeper levels of feminist questions. I found this insight in the published speech he held in Ouagadougou in 1987, on International Women’s Day. Whereas as a philosopher I cannot subscribe to any version of Marxism as a doctrine (as I can’t to any doctrine), I am critical to some of the elements of this doctrine as shared by him – I cannot escape however the fact that Sankara tried to think further from the roots also, to understand things happening in his times.

First some political facts of his feminism: during his presidency he addressed women’s problems as they appeared in his time and part of the world – not only did he legally ban (in a time when this issue was barely discussed on a wider scale) female genital mutilation and other sexuality-related oppressive structures like polygamy and forced marriages, he also promoted women leadership and the preconditions for it: defying the practice of banning girls from school when they became involuntarily pregnant. Then let us look at his ideas, which go beyond traditional (marxist) feminism. He wrote of women’s emancipation that ‘it is not a mechanical equality between men and women […]. The genuine emancipation of women is that one entrusts responsibilities to women […].’ Also he realised that women rights are not something which men can give, as a present to women: ‘It is for women themselves to put forward their demands and mobilize to win them.’ The interesting thing in these last words is that he proclaims, as a man and a political leader, his solidarity to women who do just this. In so doing he steps back, as a man and a leader, realising that once he would prescribe what emancipated women need – he would obstruct the very thing he wanted to promote.

Another, seemingly simple, point in his feminism is even more radical – a point not very well addressed up till now – the point of domestic work. Socialist and communist feminism has mostly focused on the public rights of women, their right to work, to an education, to divorce and contraception, supposing the state or some public institutions would take care of the tasks always silently allocated to women: taking care of children and of the home. Feminists have struggled for the right to child care, or for some parental leave for fathers of young children. But the massive fact that to raise children takes decennia, and that the household never stops, is rarely discussed. But Thomas Sankara does discuss this: ‘Where is men’s real superiority complex more pernicious, yet at the same time more decisive, than in the home […]?’ Although he also sees a task for child care centers in relieving the burden of women, he does not beat around the bush: ‘Men and women will, from now on, share all the tasks in the home.’

There is the point without which no feminist movement will ever accomplish equal rights for women beyond their paper version. And on this point Sankara’s words go beyond local situations and problems and become universal. It is not just that the burdens of domestic work should be relieved from women, so that they can participate more fully in public life – without men and women of one household sharing this work, it will onely be transferred to some low-paid other women as it is the case in the richer parts of the world. But more significantly, it will keep men from ever feeling what this responsibility of caring for the home is about, and thus, from ever being able to practice real solidarity with feminist goals – this is, I think, what Sankara understood.

Thomas Sankara lived from 1949 untill 1987 when he was murdered. He was the president of Burkina Faso from 1983 – 1987, during which period he aimed to realise goals like land reform and independency from the IMF. I cited from his speech Women’s liberation and the African freedom struggle, published in 1990 (second edition 2007) by Pathfinder Press, USA. His speech contains more surprising views and expressions than the one’s I could cite in the limits of this post.

I am a feminist. I have always felt I could not not be one. All the same I have met with much confusion on the subject around me. Time to disentangle some knots and try to shed some light on the differing philosophical, political and social views that do and do not combine with feminism. A most important form of confusion one encounters often is the idea that feminism is something for women. That it is the ideology of a lobby that has for its aim to promote the interests of its members. Well, it is not, and that is shown in the many arguments that men have brought forward for it. They cannot be suspected to be members of a lobby group restricted to women, so why would they be feminists?

They have many reasons, political, social, philosophical – and they are not even of a kind. In general feminism is seen as a product of the Enlightenment – as one of the emancipation movements of workers, women and people of colour that based itself on the idea of the equality of all ‘men’. All the same, we have seen massive criticism of the major Enlightenment thinkers – for the fact that despite their general ideas about the equality of ‘mankind’ they excluded all the mentioned groups who fought for emancipation in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries from the realm where the equal rights reign. Such criticism has led to the questioning of the aim of Enlightenment itself: was it really a movement for the advancement of humanitarian values like equal rights for all, or was it the very succesful dust thrown in the eyes of those who were to support by their free labour and care the winners of the colonial and the early industrial era?

It is more complicated than that, as we see that in those same centuries of equality for the few and oppression for the most, we see Aufklärer (taken in a broad sense) who seem to have drawn the right consequences from the principles of modern thought. It is only natural that some of the feminist treatises of such writers, even of the men among them, are hardly known, for they sure went against the mainstream. Lets remember some of them. Like the social Cartesian Francois Poulain the la Barre (1647-1723), who wrote no less than three feminist treatises: On the Equality of the two Sexes (1673), On the Education of Women (1674) and On the Qualities of Men, against the Equality of the Sexes (1675). The final title might mislead – it contains a criticism of criticisms of feminism. Poulain based his arguments on the Cartesian critique of tradition as authority. If one thinks for oneself, unprejudiced, one must conclude, he argues, that men and women only differ where sexual reproduction is concerned, and in no other relevant aspects. Ergo: women deserve the same opportunities in public life as men. Here we see a consistent modernism – which cannot be dismissed on the grounds of creating false consciousness.

Somewhat less forgotten is the feminism of John Stuart Mill (1806-1873). But when Mill is mentioned in the philosophy curriculum as the influential writer of Utilitarianism (1863) and On Liberty (1859), most teachers forget to mention his other important work The Subjection of Women (1869) – seeing feminism as a ‘special subject’ and not as one that stands at the centre of moral thought. To Mill this is not so: not only does he defend equal opportunities for women on the pragmatic ground that human society should use its most talented individuals to run its affairs and not harm itself by letting the talent of half of humankind wasted – but he also gives the pronounced moral argument that ‘every restraint on the freedom of conduct of any of their fellow human creatures, […] dries up […] the principal fountain of human happiness, and leaves the species less rich, to an inappreciable degree, in all that makes life valuable to the individual human being.’

Two male feminists, modernists also, using very distinct arguments for their case. Their inspirational principles are distinct also. For Mill it is the greatest happiness principle, which acknowledges the importance of the sentient individual as the cornerstone of moral thought. For Poulain it is the objective or empirical equality of both sexes, apart from sexual reproduction – a more ‘materialist’, ‘proto-socialist’ principle. Feminism thus goes beyond widely differing views on politics and society, it surmounts them. Perhaps it provides one of several possible litmus tests for deciding, in the end, on the moral worth of the whole Enlightenment experience. And should the test produce a positive result, this would of course have to lead to the conclusion that Kant and many others who thought ‘some pigs to be more equal than others’, had it wrong in defending the lost cause of the subjection of women.

Dates and works of Poulain de la Barre and Stuart Mill I already mentioned in the text above. Their feminist works mentioned can all be accessed online.

Mill’s here: http://archive.org/stream/subjectionofwome00millrich#page/n3/mode/2up

Poulain de la Barre’s here: http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k82363t/f1.image.

Some of the research for this subject I did a long time ago, when I prepared the introduction to the early feminist Treatise on the Talent of Women for Science, of a Dutch thinker, Anna Maria van Schuurman, originally published in Latin in 1641, and translated by Renée Ter Haar in Dutch for the publication in 1996 by Uitgeverij Xeno, Groningen.

I promised to practice involved philosophy. And I think I did some of that, relating philosophical thought to aspects of the present human condition in which I see myself involved. What are those things in which I am involved? Globalization and the economic situation (which I hesitate to call capitalist, as I find more and more there is something problematical about it which goes beyond socialist/communist versus capitalist); migration and human rights; situations which could be called ‘racist’, although they are no longer about race, but more about ethnicity/culture/religion; the administrative pressures on care, learning, and life in general; our relation to nature… I have touched on those themes in several posts. One theme that I have neglected so far, thereby obeying a general trend, is that of the question of female-male relationships, which we used to call the feminist question, reintroduced under a new name in 1984 by Luce Irigaray as the ethics of sexual difference.

This neglect is nothing but an ostrich attitude, a natural attitude to want things away that are too ugly to look at. Just as the world after 1989 adopted the self-gratulatory mood of having reached the era of freedom and democracy, sustained by free economic exchange without borders (characterized by Derrida as the noisiest gospel), opinion leaders now for some time seem to carry the message that freedom and equality has in principle been reached for women worldwide (despite some backward problematic areas and events, like rape in civil wars, or child marriage in poor and unenlightened countries). Of course, women are granted civil rights in large parts of the world, since the twentieth century, and morally this situation has the stronger position worldwide. Still, one senses often, in some sense nothing has been reached. And Irigaray probably has found the problematic spot: ‘In politics, some overtures have been made to the world of women. But these overtures remain partial and local: some concessions have been made by those in power, but no new values have been established.’ (my italics)

This could very well explain the uncanny feeling that having one’s rights been granted does not repair all the damage which has been done to our world. The brave appeal that Irigaray has made (for which she has of course been heavily criticized too) is that we should still begin to have a ‘nontraditional, fecund encounter between the sexes’. I must admit that her book has only been looked into by me, since I bought it in 2006: it silently beckons me to read it fully. I have my excuses: my teaching program has been restricted to introductory courses, so I could not do it within my teaching assignment. And I had other things to read that seemed more coherent with my research plans. But it must also have satisfied the ostrich in me. For I live every day with a lot of silent discontent concerning her subject. No, more, not only discontent, but actual difficulties in speaking and acting from my heart. A hundred silent obstacles each day. The fecund encounter between the sexes barely exists, say Irigaray: ‘It does not voice its demands publicly, except through certain kinds of silence and polemics.’ Mostly silence, to my view. In 1984 we had polemics still, they are gone.

So, what is her point? Her ambitious point – that ‘sexual difference is probably the issue in our time which could be our “salvation” if we thought it through.’ The point is, that as long as we have not tried to understand the relation of sexual difference as being one of the fundamentals of being human, we have not reached the beginning of understanding ourselves as a species. Let alone be in a position to take a critical view at our so-called ethics and politics, our ‘mastery of nature’ and our ‘progress’. The foundation for her thought Irigaray found in the work of the philosopher which I chose to discuss in my first post, as my point of departure, so to say: Ludwig Feuerbach. Feuerbach was the first to draw our attention to the fact that the thinker is always already a sensuous, sensual being – male or female. That no thought is disconnected from our experiencing – body and soul – of our world. Feuerbach was also the one who drew attention to the fact that in religion, we, human beings, create the images of what a better, an ideal life could be like: it is there that we store, reconstruct and take care of our values. (I must stress here that the same goes for ‘atheistic’ or ‘humanistic’ religion as providing places where values are maintained)

So here, in the realm of values, contends Irigaray, we could expect a really fresh vision towards the contradictions in which we are stuck these days. That is what ‘salvation’ means. We can be saved from the false words of freedom and morality which cover up secret wars and suppression of freedoms. But the work has not been done, it has not even been started (not only not by me, postponing reading her book from cover to cover, but neither by critical thought, or philosophy). To lift a tip of the veil of this work: it presupposes the full acknowledgment of ‘incarnation’ – of the ‘memory of touching’ – where, before any formal rights will have been granted, alterity (another word for freedom) already might have been destroyed – or rescued.

Luce Irigaray was born in 1930 in Belgium. She has a name in deconstructivist feminist philosophy. I cited from the 2004 Continuum English edition of her An Ethics of Sexual Difference, originally published in French in 1984 as Éthique de la Différence Sexuelle.