Skip to content

Performing Philosophy’s Exclusions: The Role of Publicity In Changing the Field

Last week, one of the tone-setting figures in the field of philosophy, University of Chicago law professor Brian Leiter, allowed for some speculation on the reasons for the employment of a nontenured woman philosopher on a thread on his blog (see comment #2 by AnonUntenured).  That thread did not take long to deteriorate into a #MRA meltdown where anonymous trolls insist that it is men not women who are the true victims in the current state of the discipline.  The target of the initial speculation, Leigh Johnson of Christian Brothers University, submitted a comment in reply to the moderated thread where the speculation first arose but it was not approved.  Johnson included that comment in a response which articulated pretty clearly that she is one among many women in philosophy who is just not going to take it anymore.  I witnessed some discussion on social media in light of Johnson’s response where there was disagreement over whether Johnson, and not just Johnson but anyone who was upset that a very senior very influential person was allowing speculation over the legitimacy of a junior woman philosopher’s employment, should bring attention to this behavior by addressing it head on or just ignore it.  I’ve been thinking all week about why I think this kind of thing needs to be publicized rather than ignored.  Her post received 12,000 hits in the first 24 hours it was up in an effort, as she said quoting Gilles Deleuze, “to harm stupidity, to make stupidity shameful.”  I completely support that reasoning for publicizing it, but I want to add another.

Jacques Rancière argues in his essay, “Who is the Subject of the Rights of Man?” that the political subject is the one who is capable of staging a dissensus.  Rancière defines a dissensus as “putting two worlds in one and the same world.”  Rancière argues against Arendt’s critique of rights as meaningless because it is only the citizen and not the human who can bear them.  For Arendt, to claim protection under the rubric of human rights is meaningless because such rights still need to be recognized by a state willing to protect them in order for such rights to have any force as rights at which point they become civil rights rather than human rights.  Rancière argues that it is not that they are meaningless or powerless without the recognition of those who would enforce them, but that this space between the invocation of rights and the lack of recognition of them is the place in which political subjectivization occurs.  As Rancière says, “political names are litigious names” (304) (so watch your defamation per se, if you know what I mean).  What he means is that political subjects are contesting the situation, and they are doing so in two ways.

The first way is to show that the claim of the established community to include is a sham, that some are in fact being denied rights that they are declared to have.  The second way is to show that the community ought to be including those it expressly excludes because the excluded have enacted the rights they are said not to have.  As Rancière puts it, “They acted as subjects that did not have the rights that they had and had the rights that they had not” (304).

This point was clearly made during the French Revolution by a revolutionary woman, Olympe de Gouges, in her famous statement that if women are entitled to go to the scaffold, they are entitled to go to the assembly.

The point was precisely that equal-born women were not equal citizens. They could neither vote nor be elected.The reason for the prescription was, as usual, that they could not fit the purity of political life. They allegedly belonged to private, domestic life. And the common good of the community had to be kept apart from the activities, feelings, and interests of private life. Olympe de Gouge’s argumentation precisely showed that the border separating bare life and political life could not be so clearly drawn. There was at least one point where ‘‘bare life’’ proved to be ‘‘political’’: there were women sentenced to death, as enemies of the revolution. If they could lose their ‘‘bare life’’ out of a public judgment based on political reasons, this meant that even their bare life—their life doomed to death—was political. If, under the guillotine, they were as equal, so to speak, ‘‘as men,’’ they had the right to the whole of equality, including equal participation to political life.

Of course the deduction could not be endorsed—it could not even be heard —by the lawmakers. Nevertheless, it could be enacted in the process of a wrong, in the construction of a dissensus. A dissensus is not a conflict of interests, opinions, or values; it is a division put in the ‘‘common sense’’: a dispute about what is given, about the frame within which we see something as given. Women could make a twofold demonstration. They could demonstrate that they were deprived of the rights that they had, thanks to the Declaration of Rights. And they could demonstrate, through their public action, that they had the rights that the constitution denied to them, that they could enact those rights. So they could act as subjects of the Rights of Man in the precise sense that I have mentioned. They acted as subjects that did not have the rights that they had and had the rights that they had not.

So what does this have to do with whether to respond to and publicize Leiter’s thread?  I submit that there is an analogous relation here.  Many in the field claim that there is no problem here, women have the rights they wish to claim in the field just as much as men do.  Yet this comment thread as well as a series of other attacks that Johnson has archived demonstrates that it is not the case that women are being treated as full members of the community, able to speak freely as we like to think we can in the discipline of philosophy.  I do not mean to say that a specific right has been denied, but the political right as such–to be a part equal to the other parts of the community–is denied.  The field claims to be open to everyone with the rightful claim, but still effectively excludes by making it difficult for those it says it includes to fully take part.  On the other hand, publicizing in this way is akin to “demonstrat[ing], through their public action, that they had the rights” that are denied them by creating this hostile environment.  It is in this way that Rancière shows how what constitutes a rightful claim to belong is under dispute and thus, what motivates the staging of the dissensus.

Rancière uses an example in Dis-Agreement: Politics and Philosophy to describe the way that the excluded perform their belonging by showing that they can do what they are denied the capacity to do and thus what denies them their rightful place.  The example is of the speech act, “Do you understand?” spoken to the slave who is clearly not meant to understand but just to obey.  But in order to obey, the slave has to understand  that she is not meant to understand but just to obey.  The slave understands the structure of the command as well as the command, understanding twofold, while the master does not need to understand the structure.  By responding, the slave performs her double understanding, an understanding which is both forbidden and required by the original charge.

The speculation over the reasons for a untenured female professor’s employment is the “Do you understand?” in this example.  It says, you don’t belong.  You don’t have a claim.  You shouldn’t be comfortable here.  But Johnson’s initial comment submission to Leiter and her analysis of the original comment shows a refusal to comply and in refusing to comply by exposing the claim for what it is, a move of exclusion, it shows that the excluded does have a rightful claim to belong.

Disclosure: Leigh Johnson is a  friend of mine; this post was written entirely on my own initiative and in no way enlisted by any other party including her.

No comments yet

What's your Line on this?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: