Catharine MacKinnon’s Feminist Jurisprudence In The Classroom

Next week, students in my Philosophy of Law class will read and discuss Catharine MacKinnon‘s ‘Feminism, Marxism, Method, and the State: Toward Feminist Jurisprudence‘  (Signs, Vol. 8, No. 4 (Summer, 1983), pp. 635-658). MacKinnon’s writings have featured once before on my reading lists–for my graduate ‘Nature of Law’ seminar at the City University Graduate Center in 2015. She is always a teaching challenge: she is provocative, invariably evoking strong reactions from her readers, and often, a dense read. No matter what the class’ reaction to the assigned reading as students read it on their own, I’m reasonably hopeful that passages like the following will provoke discussion when we gather in the classroom:

Feminism does not begin with the premise that it is unpremised. It does not aspire to persuade an unpremised audience because there is no such audience. Its project is to uncover and claim as  valid the experience of women, the major content of which is the devalidation of women’s experience.

This defines our task not only because male dominance is perhaps the most pervasive and tenacious system of power in history, but because it is metaphysically nearly perfect. Its point of view is the standard for point-of-viewlessness, its particularity the meaning of universality. Its force is exercised as consent, its authority as participation, its supremacy as the paradigm of order, its  control as the definition of legitimacy. Feminism claims the voice of women’s silence, the sexuality of our eroticized desexualization, the fullness of “lack,” the centrality of our marginality and exclusion, the public nature of privacy, the presence of our absence. This approach is more complex than transgression, more transformative than transvaluation, deeper than mirror-imaged resistance, more affirmative than the negation of our negativity. It is neither materialist nor idealist; it is feminist. Neither the transcendence of liberalism nor the determination of materialism works for us. Idealism is too unreal; women’s inequality is enforced, so it cannot simply be thought out of existence, certainly not by us. Materialism is too real; women’s inequality has never not existed, so women’s equality never has. That is, the equality of women to men will not be scientifically provable until it is no longer necessary to do so. Women’s situation offers no outside to stand on or gaze at, no inside to escape to, too much urgency to wait, no place else to go, and nothing to use but the twisted tools that have been shoved down our throats. If feminism is revolutionary, this is why.

I hope to write here next week on the how the classroom discussion went.

Steven Salaita And The Anger Of the Subjugated

In response to my post yesterday, which I crossposted over at the NewAPPS blog, a couple of readers there wondered about the analogy I had drawn between Professor F and Steven Salaita‘s cases. Reader Meir Alon suggested my comparison was ‘very wrong’, Darius Jedburgh said my comparison of Salaita was, indeed, ‘slanderous’, and yet another worthy wondered what the point of it all was.

In constructing the analogy I noted Professor F, like Salaita, had a distinguished academic record, that she worked in a field which often featured polemically charged debates, many of which for her, because of her personal standing and situation–Professor F  has very likely experienced considerable sexism in her time–were likely to be charged emotionally, and that a few hyperbolic, intemperate responses, made in a medium not eminently suited to reasonable discourse, and featuring many crucial limitations in its affordance of sustained intellectual engagement, should not disqualify her from an academic appointment made on the basis of her well-established scholarship and pedagogy.

I could very easily have constructed another analogy, using an accomplished professor of African American studies, Professor B, who stepping into the Ferguson debate, after engaging, dispiritingly, time and again, in his personal and academic life, with not just the bare facts of racism in American life and the depressing facts pertaining to informal, day-to-day segregation but also with a daily dose of bad news pertaining to the fate of young black men in America, might finally experience the proverbial last straw on the camel’s back, and respond with a few tweets as follows:

Plantation rules still apply apparently; talk back and massa will let you know who’s boss. And keep those hands up, boy, while you talk to him.

The Black Panthers had it right; arm yourself and fight back. Dr. King might have gotten us some legislation, but cordite and gunpowder is needed now.

Malcolm X or King? Well, that debate now seems settled. By any means necessary for me.

Using these sorts of remarks–even if, or especially if, made on social media networks–as  ammunition against academics, is eminently bad policy. They can all too easily be read out of context–like the ones I have tried to provide above. (Salaita is Palestinian-American and likely knows many personally affected by the continuing tragedy of Palestine. Incidentally, as has been noted, he has tweeted widely and often on the Israel-Palestine debate, and while his pugnacious style is unmistakable in many of his productions, so is a far more temperate and conciliatory tone.)

There is a subtext to this whole business. The firestorm of reactions to Salaita, and which would be set off by Professor F and Professor B–Fox News would certainly have a field day with them, calling for their heads on a pike–is indicative of a continuing determination to police and regulate the nature of the resistance offered by those who speak up on behalf of the traditionally subjugated. Salaita, Professor F, and Professor B, are all expected to conform to certain norms of civil discourse, to channel their resistance–perhaps diffusing their passion and their energy–into channels defined and established by a system that has not worked for them.  (Yes, they are all faculty members with tenure, but that still does not make them ‘insiders.’) These transgressions on their part are just the moment those opposed to their resistance are waiting for; gone, in a flash, is their established record elsewhere; all that matters, now, is this indiscretion.

My point was not so much to construct an exact or precise analogy between the cases of Professor F and Salaita; rather, it was to provide some context, and to point to, perhaps only implicitly, a continuing pattern of willful ignorance when it came to understanding, accepting, and making room for those who, because of their backgrounds and histories, might often speak up and act in ways that those more comfortably ensconced do not have to.

Steven Salaita And The Feminist Professor Who Praised Valerie Solanas

Here is a story of a professor, whose tweets got her into trouble.

The professor in question is a feminist, Professor F–sometimes termed ‘radical’ by her friends, colleagues, and academic foes for her uncompromisingly feminist scholarship and her vigorous, no-nonsense rhetorical style, which is well-versed in the demolition of putative rebuttals to feminist theory and keenly honed by vigorous participation in political polemical debate. She has a distinguished record in scholarship, excellent teaching evaluations–from male and female students alike (though some unkind ones did call her “a typical nut-cracking feminazi”), and found, by dint of these accomplishments, a cohort of scholars and students who admire her work.

One day, after reading in the news about yet another atrocity committed on women–perhaps a gang-rape by fraternity or football team members who then broadcast their deeds on social media networks, perhaps an obnoxious radio host leading a cheerleading squad of listeners terming women who use contraceptives ‘sluts’, perhaps a story like the Rotherham child abuse case. Today she is fuming; she is tired and dispirited–all that scholarship, all that debate, and the world continues on its merry misogynistic ways; this is the worst of all possible Groundhog Days–the same abuse, the same mealy-mouthed exculpations, the same offensive, tone-deaf defenses.

She goes to her office, grabs her cup of coffee, and checks into Twitter. Her timeline is abuzz–her friends are talking about the latest case, posting links from journalists and bloggers, all weighing in with their considered opinions. Some even post links from clueless male politicians, offering their usual insensitive, sexist responses to the latest fiasco.

The outraged, intemperate tweets follow:

Days like this, I feel like re-installing Valerie Solanas as my hero. She would have known what to do. The time for just polemics is over.

I mean, who wouldn’t want to re-read the S.C.U.M manifesto all over again and take it way more seriously this time. She might have been right all along.

In case you are wondering: S.C.U.M = Society for Cutting Up Men. And geez, I could send in the subscription fees for that right about now.

“Overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and eliminate the male sex”? Yes sir, more please.

A few more tweets follow along the same lines.

Unfortunately, more is brewing than just the next cup of coffee in our professor’s office. She has applied for, and–thanks to her outstanding academic record–been accepted for a tenured professorship in the Women’s Studies department at  a prominent mid-western university .  A mere rubber-stamping of the hiring decision by the university’s trustees awaits; moving expenses and administrative details of the new appointment are already being worked out. Unfortunately, the chancellor of the university, having read these tweets, or rather having been pointed to them, and having been contacted by donors who find them ‘anti-male’, ‘demeaning’ and ‘abusive’ and thus, possibly offensive to the male students who might be in her classes (and maybe even to her colleagues), decides to rescind the job offer.  Pleas to reconsider this decision, grounded in defenses of academic freedom, and of the inappropriateness of using pronouncements on social media as being indicative of broader personal and professional commitments, fall on deaf ears.

Professor F and Steven Salaita both need our help. Only one of them is real, the latter. Read this post by Corey Robin, which details the latest developments in his case; in it you will find the email addresses of the Board of Trustees at the University of Illinois to whom you should write, urging the university to rescind its ‘de-hiring.’