Category Archives: why

“Sexual Paranoia” and Trigger Warnings: Speech and Power

I have been watching the recent response to this Laura Kipnis piece in the Chronicle with knots in my stomach. Then I developed a sprain in my eyeballs from the rolling.

At the end of February, Laura Kipnis argued in “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe” that new codes governing sexual conduct between professors and students exhibit a “feminism hijacked by melodrama,” a kind of hysterical feminism that exaggerates the vulnerability of students and constructs a “fiction of the all-powerful professor.” Against this dour picture of the current state of sexual affairs on campus, Kipnis reflects nostalgically on her own art college experience in the mid to late 1970s: “When I was in college, hooking up with professors was more or less part of the curriculum… Lots of smart, ambitious women were doing the same thing, according to [Jane Gallop], because it was a way to experience your own power.” She argues that policies such as these – as well as trigger warnings – are part of a climate of sexual paranoia on campus that ill-serves students in preparing them badly for the “boorish badlands of real life” and treats professors as predators, making it far too easy to destroy their lives. Far from defending an antifeminist position, Kipnis argues that she herself would want to see sexual harrassers “chemically castrated, stripped of their property, and hung up by their thumbs in the town square.” She suggests that if universities want to deal with sexual assault, we shouldn’t ban professor-student relationships, but rather fraternities; and that if we want to deal with sexual favoritism, we should end spousal hires, “where trailing spouses are getting ranks and perks based on whom they’re sleeping with rather than CVs alone, and brought in at salaries often dwarfing those of senior and more accomplished colleagues who didn’t have the foresight to couple more advantageously” (too which – I’m just not even).

The center of this piece is a series of lawsuits and counter-suits surrounding a case of sexual assault between an undergraduate student at Northwestern University (where Kipnis teaches) and her philosophy professor. Obviously many of us from philosophy departments (present tense or past) know about this case, and the role that it has played – or the ways in which it has been used – to shape responses to activism within the discipline to create a better climate for the women who work in and study philosophy. So I think that we at xcphilosophy are in a particularly good position to think about this, and to parse what’s going on in this conversation about feminism, speech, sex codes, trigger warnings, etc., from the perspective of what’s going on in philosophy – rather than the perspective of a resuscitation of the culture wars of the 1990s, complete with an Andrea Dworkin v Wendy Kaminer cage match.

So, I just want to say a couple of things about this.

First, in this piece, Kathryn Pogin, a Ph.D. student in philosophy at Northwestern, points out that she contacted the Chronicle to address several misrepresentations about the Northwestern case in Kipnis’ piece. This includes the claim that the accused professor is also suing a graduate student that he previously dated for defamation, since the student alleges that he sexually harassed her. Pogin points out that it is the accused professor who claims that he was dating the graduate student as part of his defense; the graduate student herself says that they were not dating. Kipnis took this claim on its face; that is, she believed the claim the professor makes in his lawsuit against the graduate student. So, okay. Moreover, in email exchanges about Pogin’s request for corrections of these misrepresentations, she was referred to in an email sent to her by mistake as a “girl” “splitting hairs” in an “incomprehensible tirade.”

Also, as this piece points out, I have literally never heard students complaining about campus feminists violating their right to sleep with their professors? Like, never. I have more than once heard hysterically defensive claims from professors, like: “But what if the student in class is leading me on with what she is wearing?” and “We don’t need a sexual harassment policy. The pretty ones won’t mind and the ugly ones don’t need it.” If all of this worry about coddling and abridgments of free speech or whatever is truly all about affirming the agency of our students, then why aren’t we hearing much from them about protecting their rights to sleep with their professors, rather than hearing about professor’s rights to sleep with their students? The erotics implied between professors and students here are themselves a confirmation of the power imbalance: after all, do people in equal relationships often threaten each other, or feel threatened by, sexual blackmail?

These conversations are not merely theoretical for many of us in philosophy. We have heard the stories about how women in philosophy in generations before us were expected to sleep with their advisors. It was just how things were done. It’s not a big deal, really; we should be cool about it. We should in fact be so feminist about how not a big deal it is that we should prove it by sleeping with our professors (or so they said). Women who are successful in philosophy are as a result often hobbled by implications that what is valuable about them is not exactly their intellect. And many of us have  students who come to us now, crushed and filled with self-doubt, when they realize that their professors’ attention was grooming, not mentorship. Many of us therefore carry what Sally Haslanger refers to as a “deep well of rage” inside of us at the accumulation of these stories and experiences.

Kipnis’ piece generated several responses, including one from Michelle Goldberg in The Nation, and Judith Shulevitz in the New York Times. Shulevitz uses Kipnis’ piece as evidence of an overall trend towards coddling college students from scary ideas, alongside campaigns to designate certain areas or whole campuses as “safe spaces,” and the use of trigger warnings on syllabi and in classrooms. There is a lot to be said about trigger warnings – where they came from, what they have developed in to, what they do and don’t do – and some interesting and productive things said about them are here and here.

What I am most concerned about in all of this is the total lack of attention to the role played by the university’s neoliberal risk-management culture. That is, there is a huge difference between the origins of trigger warnings in online feminism – requests for warnings about content, discussions and arguments about what they mean and whether they are effective, the meanings of accessibility and difference, and the inevitable joke content warnings about Justin Bieber – and the adoption of trigger warnings or content warnings in syllabi or in the classroom as policy enforced by university instructors’ contracts.

Even further than that, my university – like many – has decided in the wake of the “new legal environment” following the “Dear Colleague” letter of 2011 addressing guidelines for compliance with Title IX and the Clery Act, to make reporting of “sexual misconduct” mandatory for all faculty on campus. We are designated “responsible reporters,” meaning that we cannot keep confidential any conversations about assault that may have taken place between university students, staff, or faculty confidential. This policy is one adopted wholesale from the Association of Title IX Administrators (ATIXA), a subsidiary of the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management, whose CEO, Brett Sokolow, has argued that such blanket reporting structures are necessary to ensure that there is no “confusion” about compliance.

This effectively means that my syllabi, my office, and my classrooms are not safe spaces for survivors (or “accusers,” if Kipnis prefers). And if a university with this policy provides a so-called “safe space” for those triggered by particularly graphic speech on campus (as in the Shulevitz piece), given the blanket “responsible reporter” policy, it is probably not a safe space for students who report that they have been sexually harassed or assaulted on campus.

What this means is that, in several respects, this conversation about coddling students and attacks on free speech on campus is using feminism as a front. While individual feminists might advocate the adoption of trigger warning policies, or safe spaces, or better policies for students who are victims of rape and sexual assault, I don’t know any feminists who begin from the presumption that we should take away choice from survivors, and put them through a process that is not meant to ensure their healing but rather the indemnity of the institution, whether they want it or not. Let’s not get confused about who is in charge here, and whose interests are at stake.

APA presidential address: “Philosophy’s Civil Wars”

Linda Alcoff, President of the American Philosophical Association, gave a bang-up presidential address at this year’s meeting of the Eastern APA in Atlanta. you can listen to it here.

in it, she does a great job of linking what she calls philosophy’s “civil wars” to philosophy’s “demographic problem”: she argues that philosophy marginalizes precisely the work that is most effective in challenging hegemonic philosophy, which is done, unsurprisingly, by those at the margins of philosophy, who are often enough women, queers, people of color, or people from outside the axes defining philosophy’s geography.

what do y’all think of the work she does here linking philosophy’s “civil wars” to philosophy’s “demographic problem”?


“Questioning a Continent’s Validity”

“Europe is not and has never been a continent
Yet they teach us it is all through school
So when I raise my hand in class and ask:
‘Ey teach, continent is defined as a large land mass
surrounded completely or almost completely by water
Europe is neither large
Even almost surrounded by water
How is it a continent?”
I get looked at like a fool.
Teach tells me, Because it is.
Now this never flew with me as a kid
I aint get the answer needed
I’m disrupting the rest of yo’ class period
So now I’m in the principal’s office
Being asked to explain
why I’m questioning a continent’s validity”

Shakti Butler’s new documentary, Cracking the Codes: The System of Racial Inequity, released two months ago (September 27, 2012), begins with this piece from poet and hip hop artist Y. Jelal Huyler, an Oakland Poetry Slam finalist. This video is a performance of the poem at the Oakland Poetry Slam. The poem is excerpted throughout the documentary and Jelal narrates the transitions of the film.

“Europe is not and has never been a continent”

Philosophy is not European.

My mind was blown a little bit when I saw and heard this poetic argument. Not because it was hard to swallow; no, because it was so obvious and had such fantastic implications for questioning the validity of continental philosophy. Don’t get me wrong: I’m a some-time student of The West Wing, and I’ve seen the Peters Projection map of the world, which is a better representation of the globe stretched across a flat surface, and if you don’t know it, Europe and the US turn out to look even smaller than they do on the Mercator. So I wasn’t completely ignorant of the politics of geography here. But it had never occurred to me in such a direct and explicit way that Europe doesn’t fit the definition of a continent.

This got me thinking, along the lines of EI’s recent post ‘Why Still Philosophy?,’ about the Adornian appeal to immanent critique, and the question of what strikes whom as immanent. Huyler’s excerpt that opens Cracking the Codes ends like this: “You raised me to focus on facts/I’ve done what you asked/Now you let me know I’m digging too deep.” I suspect many readers of this blog will be familiar with this feeling of doing what you were taught to do by the parental/first generation (see the Manifesto)—in our case it’s methods rather than facts, per se—and then being punished for the questions you are able to ask, in some cases because of those methods. But I would suggest that these questions that we can ask, whoever we are, may not be enabled by the methods or topics of continental philosophy so much as they are by the other reading we do and the other lives we lead. That it is these other lives we lead that allow for certain questions to emerge as immanent. I think this is why we might often feel like what is most immanent to the arguments of canonical continental philosophers are the very last things we are supposed to point out or elaborate. Again, immanent to whom? As my mother likes to say when I’m looking for some physical object that is right there and yet I can’t find it: “If it was a snake it would bite you.”

“Now I’m in the principal’s office/ Being asked to explain/ Why I’m questioning the validity of a continent.”

If Europe (You’re-up?) is not and has never been a continent, what is “continental philosophy?” It is not, let me be clear here, any kind of Derridian impossibility—at least not for me. It’s not a philosophy to-come. Like EI, I hold out for what philosophy could be, but I hesitate to even use the word philosophy because I think it might have to be called something otherwise in order for it to be the otherwise that it can be.

No, this post is not about continental philosophy’s promise.

No, Continental philosophy is one tiny narrow slice of the planet’s tools for critique, critical thinking—for something like, but importantly otherwise than, philosophy. Just as the “continent” of Europe is an even tinier portion of the planet, even if you only include the planet’s land mass, when you look at a Peters map. Some readers might quibble that many other disciplines and many people from all over the planet think about and draw on the work of “continental philosophers,” but I think we need to be very careful to even concede this claim, and I think we need to be very clear about the European essentialism it trades on. In Pilgrimages/Peregrinajes, María Lugones promises herself and her readers and communities: “I won’t think what I won’t practice.” Sometimes we understand the practical, oppressive implications of certain kinds of thinking without needing to entertain the thinking, and perhaps these moments more than any others reveal that it’s the other things we read and the other lives we lead, more than the continental methods we’ve learned, that cultivate this sense.

And one final point I think we need to be aware of: the fact that most “continental philosophers” don’t draw on other disciplines and don’t listen to voices from other parts of the planet is a mark of our arrogance, not our lack of need of them.

“Europe is not and has never been a continent.” Philosophy is not European.

why still philosophy?

by means of introduction, i wish to introduce a philosophical question about philosophy itself: why?

if it is the case that we are claiming a place in a discipline which has shown no particular love for us or the work we do, a discipline which in the best case tolerates our work so long as it isn’t too inconvenient or embarrassing, or so long as it doesn’t make us look bad in front of the bosses (i kid! i kid. you guys are great.), and in the worst case doesn’t consider our work at all, or if it does, certainly doesn’t consider it to be philosophy, we have to ask ourselves, why philosophy? why don’t we just follow our mutant forebears (such as judith butler or iris marion young) and get a job in some other department (insofar as we *can* get a job, at all)? if what we do is not really philosophy anyway, why not just accept that and move on? why, y’all? why still philosophy?

i ask this question as an invitation, because the answer(s) isn’t/aren’t immediately apparent.

as it was with adorno, who posed this question in a radio address in 1962, my response is ambivalent. on the one hand, there is no reason to continue to commit ourselves to a discipline that won’t commit to us. there are other venues for our work, other places where our training and talents will be taken seriously, places where we will be less exposed to bullying, microagressions, gaslighting, outright harassment, and de-legitimization of various kinds. under such conditions, leaving is not giving up. it is not a second best. it nevertheless takes real work to counter an ideology that requires that we sacrifice everything to this job. that ideology is itself the product of privilege, since it assumes a straight, white masculine position, or it at least assumes that philosophers, no matter what particular identity positions they may occupy, are able to find the necessary resources for survival in whatever position, wherever they might land. i am thinking here in particular of donna-dale marcano’s “the color of change in continental feminist philosophy”, and of alexis pauline gumb’s “the shape of my impact,” her moving reflection on the meaning of survival within and without the academy.

on the other hand, i refuse to accept the narrow-minded, self-strangulating, boring, rabidly policed and provincial view of philosophy. i refuse to accept the endless circular firing squads, where we have to denounce this and belittle that in order to jockey for legitimacy. and then claim that everyone *else* is engaging in identity politics.

philosophy is already more than that. it just isn’t entirely aware of it.

my own experience of philosophy is unusual, in that i was trained in a department in which women outnumbered men, and in which all kinds of questions – questions of race, gender, sexuality, and ability, alongside and in conversation with questions about the status of reason, the workings of logic, the claims to knowledge, the meaning of history, of sovereignty, of style – were taken seriously as philosophical questions. this searching took place through a constellation of texts, both “traditional” and “non-traditional.” my training did not emphasize competition or one-upsmanship: while we had to make claims and arguments and defend them, this effort was not (for the most part) treated as a zero-sum game or a “blood” “sport.” it was instead an atmosphere of collaboration, of a common struggle to understand and to critique and to problematize and to complicate and to sharpen and deepen our questions. in it, i learned as much from the questions and concerns of my peers as i did from my faculty. this atmosphere was, as i later learned, exceptional; even more so as this atmosphere did not persist, not even in my own graduate department. nonetheless, this experience left me with an ideal of what philosophy might be, what philosophy could yet be – an ideal to which i am committed.

in the end, my answer is a protest against a too-delimited understanding of what counts as philosophy, an understanding that dictated that many of those philosophers i most admired and in many cases from whom i learned the most had to find an academic home outside philosophy in order to continue their *immensely philosophical* work.

why still philosophy?

because what is is not what ought be. and what has been is not what must be.

and because philosophy is already more, and other, than what it is.

it just isn’t entirely aware of it yet.