Derrida And Beauvoir On The ‘Powerless,’ ‘Not Bothersome’ Intellectual

In ‘The Ends of Man,’ (from After Philosophy: End or Transformation?, eds. Kenneth Baynes, James Bohman, and Thomas McCarthy, MIT Press, 1987, pp. 129), Jacques Derrida writes:

It would be illusory to believe that political innocence has been restored and evil complicities undone when opposition to them can be expressed in the country itself, not only through the voices of its citizens but also through those of foreign citizens, and that henceforth diversities, i.e., oppositions, may freely and discursively relate to one another. That a declaration of opposition to some official policy  is authorized, and authorized by the authorities, also means, precisely to that extent, that the declaration does not upset the given border, is not bothersome.

As I had noted here a while ago, some writers–political dissidents by design or accident–find out just how talented they are precisely because the powers that be find them ‘bothersome’ and act accordingly to reduce such disturbances. The rest of us have to chug along, our peace and quiet ensured by our mediocrity, by  our inability to stir the hornets’ nest. Insofar as the freedoms of expression are made available by the powerful, they are carefully circumscribed by the troubles they generate. Insecure, anxious regimes lash out blindly and often stupidly, stirring up the depths, roiling the waters; the secure, the assured, the carefully propped up, the ideologically protected, they do not need to act with such haste and panic. They may grandly, with regal authority, with a wave of an outstretched hand, permit the parades of loud and visible disobedience and dissidence to march on, knowing they can and will do little harm. More to the point, such indulgence grants them the air of enlightenment, one to be carefully cultivated by future displays of ersatz concern for civil liberties.

On a related note, at one point in  The Mandarins (WW Norton, New York, 1954; 1999, Simone de Beauvoir (or, rather her alter-ego, Anne Dubreuilh) thinks the following about her American character Lewis Brogan (in real life, Nelson Algren):

All in all, he was practically in the same position as Robert [Dubreuilh] and Henri [Perron], but he reconciled himself to it with a calm bordering on the exotic. Writing, speaking on the radio and occasionally at meetings to denounce some abuse or other satisfied him fully. Yes, I had once been told that here [in America] intellectuals could live in security because they knew they were completely powerless.

That caustic summary of the relationship between the American intellectual and the political systems which pay host to him or her is tinged with a characteristic French disdain for most things American–and perhaps a personally inflected bite as well in Beauvoir’s case–but Beauvoir’s remark is still perspicuous. The ‘critical’ American intellectual is simply not, because of his or her location in culture and its ‘business,’ placed to make dramatic or radical changes in the polity. The ‘real’ cultural, political, and financial power is wielded elsewhere; its face is most dramatically visible when the critical intellectual does dare to make an actually threatening move or two. The fate of whistleblowers reminds us of this grim fact quite frequently.

Simone Beauvoir On Psychotherapeutic Healing As Mutilation

In Simone de Beauvoir‘s The Mandarins (WW Norton, New York, 1954; 1999, pp. 64), Anne Dubreuilh, a practicing psychoanalyst wonders:

Why does healing so often mean mutilating? What value does personal adjustment have in an unjust society?….My objective isn’t to give my patients a false feeling of inner peace; if I seek to deliver them from their personal nightmares, it’s only to make them better able to face the real problems in life.

It is a matter of some interest that Beauvoir does not place scare quotes around “real” in the passage above; given the worries about her practice that Anne has just expressed, such a distancing might well be considered appropriate.  The doubt that Anne directs at her apparent ‘healing’ of her patients is an acute one: Is the patient being ‘cured’ or merely subjected to a form of psychotherapeutic cosmetic surgery to make them fit better into the contours and constraints of an entirely unreasonable world? Their nightmares are not only of their own making; a nightmarish world should induce such visions even in our sleep. Perhaps it is the world that is out of joint, not the sufferer on the couch; but we cannot cure the world, so we cure our patients instead.

In his Listening to Prozac: A Psychiatrist Explores Antidepressant Drugs and the Remaking of the Self (Viking Press, New York, 1994), Peter Kramer had expressed a similar worry: perhaps anti-depressants were a form of chemical cosmetic surgery–“cosmetic pharmacology”–deployed to round off and smoothen the rough edges of depressed and neurotic patients, the ones that did not allow them to fit into, to conform with, the world around them. We cannot respect and cherish the oddity, the idiosyncrasy, the ‘depressed’ or ‘neurotic’ person brings with them; they do not sit comfortably with this world’s required characteristics, the attributes it has granted preeminence in its table of values. (Kramer balances these claims with a sensitive appreciation of the suffering of the depressed thus addressing the perfectly reasonable claim that some kinds of mental health situations cry out for chemical intervention if only to prevent severe harms from being visited on the patient or those around them.)

The language of ‘cosmetic pharmacology’ and ‘mutilation’ suggests then, uncomfortable resonances with the oldest feminist critique of psychiatric healing directed at women: their supposed ‘mental illness,’ their ‘hysteria,’ was an entirely appropriate response to a sexist and patriarchal world. (These critiques would find particularly pointed form in Phyllis Chesler‘s 1972 Women and Madness.) If they were mad, they had been driven so; but that madness was a divine one, for it was touched with visions that the society around them was blind to. An ‘adjustment’ to this society was to take on its madness instead; it was to participate in its ‘unjust’ structures and arrangements.

This then, was the ‘unjust society’s’ final addition of injury to insult for those who could not, would not, conform: a labeling as ‘defective,’ and a prescription for modification. Come back when you’re different and are ready to play; we’ll still be here.

Madeleine Albright, Simone De Beauvoir, And Hillary Clinton’s Responsibility To Women

There is a truth, however uncomfortable, to be found in Madeleine Albright‘s recent remarks–at a Hillary Clinton campaign rally–that women who don’t support other women (in politics) have a special place in a very hot place reserved just for them.  (Albright, justly notorious for her infamous remark suggesting the deaths of thousands of Iraqi children as a result of the sanctions against their nation following the First Gulf War was ‘worth it‘, obviously attracted some particularly pointed flak.)

But Albright was right about one thing. Women must support other women politically; when they vote, assume political power, draft legislation, organize politically, support candidate campaigns. Women will come to attain power and retain it when women see themselves as a political bloc, and vote accordingly. As Simone de Beauvoir noted in the famous Introduction to her opus The Second Sex:

If woman seems to be the inessential which never becomes the essential, it is because she herself fails to bring about this change. Proletarians say ‘We’; Negroes also. Regarding themselves as subjects, they transform the bourgeois, the whites, into ‘others’. But women do not say ‘We’, except at some congress of feminists or similar formal demonstration; men say ‘women’, and women use the same word in referring to themselves. They do not authentically assume a subjective attitude. The proletarians have accomplished the revolution…but the women’s effort has never been anything more than a symbolic agitation. They have gained only what men have been willing to grant; they have taken nothing, they have only received.

The reason for this is that women lack concrete means for organising themselves into a unit which can stand face to face with the correlative unit. They have no past, no history, no religion of their own; and they have no such solidarity of work and interest as that of the proletariat. They are not even promiscuously herded together in the way that creates community feeling among the American Negroes, the ghetto Jews….They live dispersed among the males, attached through residence, housework, economic condition, and social standing to certain men – fathers or husbands – more firmly than they are to other women. If they belong to the bourgeoisie, they feel solidarity with men of that class, not with proletarian women; if they are white, their allegiance is to white men, not to Negro women….The bond that unites her to her oppressors is not comparable to any other.

Beauvoir is supporting a particular form of identity politics, and asking for women to organize themselves into a political unit. She wants that unit to demonstrate a solidarity of work and interest, one that is not forthcoming so long as women remain as separated as they are, by class (social and economic) and race.  Women, all to often, are called upon to display solidarity with their class or their race, and they comply; for true political power to be attained, by women, for women, it will have to be sought from other women, and not just those whom they have persuaded to stand shoulder to shoulder with them. They will have to break the bond that unites them to their oppressors, and to do that they will have to disdain older ties, from older forms of political solidarity and build new ones–with other women.

These considerations are especially important for the Hillary Clinton campaign but not exactly in the way Albright and Clinton might have intended–at that  moment, standing together on stage. For they apply equally to those women seeking power, as they do to those who would support them. If those women are to expect the support and solidarity of other women, they must support those women themselves, through action and deed. That is, we can reframe Beauvoir’s remarks as rendering the burden of extending solidarity, a shared, mutual one: if Hillary Clinton expects and demands women’s vote because she is a woman candidate, then she must have shown she is a woman who takes care of other women, whether white, black, rich or poor. She must have supported them because they were women, and she, as a woman, understands the life experiences and stations which women undergo and occupy; her politics must show such a concern for other women.

As I noted in a recent post, it is not clear to me Hillary Clinton has done this, or will. (That case has been made much stronger by Michelle Alexander‘s essay in The Nation, and will be made even more so when Liza Featherstone‘s anthology of feminist writings on Hillary Clinton is published later this year.) There might be, for all I know, a special place in that very hot place for women who don’t support other women; we can only wonder who will sit in that particular hot seat.

Beauvoir, Morrison and Gordimer on Sex

Simone de Beauvoir famously wrote that a conceptual inversion of the sexual act was possible: perhaps woman was not merely ‘penetrated’ or ‘entered into’ by man, perhaps she ‘enveloped’ or ‘engulfed’ him instead. Sex was not an ‘invasion’ of the woman, it was an active seeking out instead. The change in perspective engendered by considering what could be a woman’s understanding of the act was radical indeed, and experienced as such by many of those who read The Second Sex. I understood this shift at one intellectual level and did not at yet another.

Till I read Toni Morrison‘s Sula (Knopf, New York, 1973). In it, when Sula has sex with Ajax, she “stood wide-legged against the wall and pulled from his track-lean hips all the pleasure her thighs could hold.” (pp. 125)  Now, I understood a little better. Here again, was woman active, possessing sexual agency, not the passive receiver of sexual attention but the active dispenser of it. She did not have something ‘put inside her’, she ‘pulled’ it to herself, the limits of that exchange only demarcated by her own desire and ability. It’s been some twenty-two years since I first read that line, and I have never forgotten it, so suddenly did it come on me as I read Sula, and so distinctive was the reconfiguration of sexual politics that it forced upon me.

Here is another literary take on the conceptual revision that Beauvoir suggested. In The Late Bourgeois World (Penguin, New York, 1966), Nadine Gordimer‘s narrator Liz Van Den Sandt ruminates over an interesting dimension of her sexual relationship with Graham:

Yet when he’s inside me–last night–there’s the strangest thing. He’s much better than someone my own age, he comes to me with a solid and majestic erection that will last as long as we choose. Sometimes he will be in me for an hour and I can put my hand on my belly and feel the blunt head, like a standard upheld, through my flesh. But while he fills me, while you’d think the last gap in me was closed for ever, while we lie there silent I get the feeling that I am the one who has drawn him up into my flesh, I am the one who holds him there, that I am the one who has him helpless. If I flex the muscles inside me, it’s as if I were throttling someone. He doesn’t speak; the suffering of pleasure shuts his eyes, the lids are tender without his glasses. And even when he brings about the climax for us–afterwards I am still holding him as if strangled; warm, thick, dead, inside. [pp. 37-38]

I suspect there are men who would find this description disconcerting–the more ‘sensitive’ among them might even be offended–and indeed, it was probably meant to be so. But hopefully, equally many men and women will find in this little passage echoes of the same species of altered perspective that Beauvoir urged us to adopt, and that Morrison so expertly captured and described.