The civic status of a contradiction, or its status in common life — that is the philosophical problem.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Section 125 of Philosophical Investigations
Academic philosophy has of late made an inadvertent case for its own relevance. Philosophy departments around the country have been flashpoints in the raging controversy about sexual harassment in the academy; Unwanted Advances, Laura Kipnis’s polemic against Title IX, revolves around a related set of cases she witnessed in Northwestern University’s philosophy department. Elsewhere, “feminist philosophers” have come under fire for their criticisms of an article published in the online journal Hypatia, a debate about intersectional paradigms that has since made inroads into the devoutly low-brow environs of New York Magazine and The New York Times. Two male philosophers, meanwhile, published a “hoax on gender studies” in an eager attempt to bolster their discipline’s reputation for sexist banality. Philosophy departments and journals might be where the battle-lines are presently being drawn, yet one thing is now readily apparent to the rest of us: it remains as challenging as ever to be a feminist in the academy, it is increasingly harder to be a woman in the United States, and the vexed relationship between femininity and feminism has not been this hotly contested in thirty years.
Anyone reading too closely into any of these controversies has to be prepared for a deluge of trivial and depressing details, in which personal attacks not only masquerade as political confrontations but erase them. Every side in these polyhedronic debates interpolates an undefined and yet specific audience — “the Left,” “progressives,” “academics,” “liberals,” “feminists,” “free-thinkers” — attributing to them vague assemblages of acceptable opinions and respectable behavior that readers are meant to find both comforting and self-evident. This, then, is how the royal We is made palatable in our mass-mediated times.
In the Kipnis book, this rhetorical strategy is elevated into axiomatic precepts; most of her argument is devoted to staging truths that “everyone” apparently knows. Everyone reading her book knows that desire is messy, that youth and beauty are powerful currencies, that women are often attracted to successful older men, and that such charming men have no trouble seducing women and don’t need to harass anyone into having sex with them. This being so, all Title IX achieves is a prosecutorial bureaucracy that empowers bitter old women out to avenge themselves on hapless men.
What kind of world produces such harpies on a massive scale? What kind of a world disgusts a brilliant and resilient scholar like Sara Ahmed so much that she decides to resign? I will not reproduce a world I can not bear, she wrote a year ago, a world that I do not think should be borne. Kipnis ignores this question in her book, fascinated as she is by aging lotharios and the ingénues that love them. Is it, perhaps, the world we inhabit: a world in which academic departments demand disproportionate amounts of emotional labor from women, in which men are rarely trained in ethical discipline, in which consent is a fraught negotiation rather than an autonomous act of affirmation, and in which people who expose inequity are all too often blamed for its effects.
The quotidian woes of heterosexual coupling — the erotics of power, if you will — have perplexed and enraged generations of intelligent women. In their world, men pursue and pester others because they feel entitled to bring their libidos to work, beauty is a punishing horizon, women silence and betray one another out of a batty desire to impress privileged men, and feminism is blamed for everything from neoliberalism to bad television. These might be, for some of us, better candidates for the truths we all know, but they are of scant interest to Laura Kipnis, for hers is a pragmatism almost indistinguishable from complacency. In her world (the real world, let us call it), women make much of their own trouble, usually by expecting too much (like respect or dignity) from men and too little from themselves. Young women indoctrinated into such “sexual hysteria” are determined to see themselves as the victims of patriarchy and thus exonerate themselves from the consequences of their actions. It is unclear where this indoctrination occurs; perhaps we can blame social media, that convenient scapegoat for millennial outrage.
The world of censorious feminism is, like the real world, essentially a cliché. All worlds ultimately are; it is what makes them predictable enough to inhabit. Worlds are made of clumsy truths so often repeated they become a sort of blinding common-sense that rejects paradox, complexity, and even particularity. This is what happens, for instance, when the adage “the personal is political” is taken to mean that individual accountability will resolve structural inequality. It is also why feminism so often devolves into a recursive argument about ideological purity, why intersectionality has only recently entered the lived lexicon of liberal feminist imaginaries, and why millions of women around the planet continue to believe that feminism is effectively a protection racket.
Yet feminism and femininity are not opposed worlds, they are richly complementary ones that contend over what Lauren Berlant once called the intimate public of women’s culture, that vast (and vastly lucrative) discursive complex devoted to negotiating the anxious ambivalence of the female condition: how does one survive the singular and disappointing reality we have without being either a victim or an exile? If, as Sara Ahmed once wrote, we can think of feminism as a history of persistence, maybe we can think of femininity as a history of endurance. Most women have to cultivate the nuanced ethical intelligence that comes from being both feminist and feminine, and it is our task—as academics, as writers, as humans—to build worlds and conventional truths that support them. We must collectively find the courage, as Berlant might say, to live better clichés. In this issue of the Advocate we begin to explore this shared terrain upon which our lives and our labor are sustained; the space between femininity as a survival skill and feminism as a politics. All the essays between these pages invite us to juxtapose the feminist with the feminine, and to recalibrate our understanding of these intertwined forms of life. At stake, as we all know, is the whole world.