Today a female student from abroad walked into my office and told me in all genuine ingenuity: "you're so beautiful, and it's not because of your habitual zest for life". Then she insisted on guessing: "you're either pregnant or something wonderful is happening." I knew she wasn't flattering me, which flattered me. So I said: "to your first guess, my answer is: not in this life time". To your second, if something wonderful is happening, it must be the realization that all good art is indeed the result of struggle." I'm struggling with some thoughts about the human condition in the face of having answered the uninteresting question: what's the meaning of life - that one, in fact, we've already figured out the minute we realized what a stupid question it is." "Oh," she said, "you know, you're the best philosopher around here." This thought horrified me. Before I got to say anything, she was interested in knowing why I don't want children. To my reply that it's because I love silence, she nodded and said: "yes, children don't make much music" - she's a musician. "Besides," she said, "it's not befitting for a woman to have children in a male dominated society." We looked at each other and discovered that both our gazes articulated the same thing: is there more for us, then, in this society of mechanical reproduction of myth and ideology? When women desire, it is deemed nonsensical, when men desire it is deemed commonsensical. The agents here are men.

This reminded me of my predicament a few days ago. I attended a conference on Artificial Environments and I was the only woman there who had questions for all the speakers (who were all male). In fact I was the only one who had questions for all presenters (here is the statistics of the participant numbers: 22 philosophers, I, an Americanist who does philosophy for the heck of it, and another graduate female student who studies industrial design; the gender ratio was thus 2 to 22).

After my first question, which went to one of the leading European philosophers of science, Andrew Pickering (at such events, all men are leading by default), my fate was sealed. My question was nasty, but damn good, I thought myself, especially in light of how Pickering's argument was advanced. He was making a case for how we must begin to think in alternative terms about the practice of science. His key concepts offered as a substitute for the age-old linguistic representation of all things were performativity, dances of agency, and emergence. He was doing what I thought the best philosophers of consciousness and epistemology are doing - who all happen to be women; just think of Donna Haraway - namely, emphasize the nature of the relational aspect of knowledge construction. Knowledge in relation tends to undo the representational realm of the linguistic turn, or so the argument goes.

I loved what Pickering had to say, that we should think about performativity as that which exceeds everything. Right, so when I asked him directly: "then what do you need the concept of agency for?" he should have been happy. He wasn't, however, and started referring to natural catastrophes and their agencies, and how everything has agency, and how he didn't have a problem with seeing agency everywhere. Of course what he was saying was non-sense. A natural catastrophe doesn't have agency precisely because it's natural. I implied this much upon being asked to explain why in the face of performativity I really don't see how we can buy the whole agency pack. I gave an example from computer game theorists. One of them said: "every time I play a game, Aristotle gets smarter." My proposition was that if we insist on holding on to the concept of agency especially as it gets to be bypassed by performativity, then, at best, we should think of it in terms of postponement. Agency works best when the one exercising it displays some degree of meta-consciousness. In this sense agency is never either active or direct but relegated to an upper level that doesn't involve thinking about one to one or binary relations. I could tell that while Pickering didn't get it, he was allured by the thought. I'm sure he went home and thought about it some more - for, he didn't want to talk to me thereafter. (I should mention that some of the others present did get it and approved of the idea, which was more amply elaborated on than I care to reproduce here).

Which brings me to closing this thought. Neither of the men present at the conference asked me anything at all about my own research: what I was working on, why I was interested in technology, science, architecture, religion, design, philosophy at large, and so on. Some of them thought I was an eager student who posed complicated questions to show how smart she was. So I didn't count (on that account it suited me fine to have lunch with 5 philosophy students who showed up on the second day, and who were sitting at a table that was not sought after by the leading men).

So yes, it seems that knowledge is relational indeed, but it only goes one way in the philosophy club: while I've learned a lot - I asked all sorts of questions both on and off the record - in relation to my own knowledge, most of the men present were exercising their agency in terms of certainty: you don't converse with women about philosophy and research. Period. So the club was not open to membership of the dubious kind (as the general tradition goes: as a woman, you can't do philosophy, as an Americanist, you can't be serious about philosophy, hence, at its best, when it is however well-intended, the question is this one: "we would like you here, but what are we going to do with you?" - (of course it never occurs to most men to ask a woman whether she finds them interesting in the slightest, which would save them the embarrassing question. For as it happens, a clever woman would never dream of waiting for men to "deal" with her.) Luckily, I was compensated plenty for my being coerced into the feeling of not-belonging. In the student club I was thoroughly entertained by their telling me how they were critical in their group assignment of one of the books written by one of the speakers; how they were using a perspective from Deleuze, whom their supervisor hates, and how they thought it was creatively productive to be serious in philosophy about mad ideas. Right on.

Now to some facts: at the end of the day I was also certain about two things:

1) on the question of the moral agency of artifacts in relation to performativity and networks of emergence: neither of the philosophers that engaged with the artificial in an environment (which means almost all of them) has read Wittgenstein properly.

2) on the question of agency: when women call the agency bluff, men go silent - or deaf. I'm now thinking: if men were children, I would love their silence. As things are, however, I find their silence not only annoying but also downright devoid of good manners.

Ah, clubs! Marx was right. The other Marx, that is.

Back to my office. I told my student today, after two hours of philosophizing the right way, that some children should be glad I'm not their mother. Imagine all the spanking! Not all knowledge emerges from practical talk. Some emerges from theoretical silence, and the best emerges from performative performance.


So, the philosophers are more interesting in print than alive? What else is new? Being an Americanist you must remember what Emerson said: "The secret of ugliness consists not in irregularity, but in being uninteresting." Conversly, there is always a danger that being better than the lot brings about the same amount of uninterestingness. Rememer here what Harry Truman said: "Being too good is apt to be uninteresting." So, let's have more poetry. Your expanded version of Eight Senses Plus One is promising, the way you and Hamlet went...
Unknown said…
Mana, good point. The expanded poetry volume is basically done. Henrik Godsk wants to illustrate it, which is just about the best offer I've had in a long time. We'll have to see what the publisher says. I think you'll like some of the new poems. They are increasingly fictionalized and whacked, (as befitting, given the dedication to fictional protagonists), yet built on that unmistakable chance moment that really happened. Anyway, we'll discourse more privately.
Anonymous said…
There are points in this article that I don't quite agree with, but my experience over a few years tell me that such disagreements are resolved best by the philosophical silence that you mention. There is, however, a second point I would like to raise in response to something you write at the end of this article:

All men can be turned into children by women. I am certainly not a feminist, but I sincerely believe that women possess this particular power . . . the power to turn men into whatever they wish for. It scares me, but I cannot, for the life of me, deny it!
Camelia said…
Hi Ritwik,

The point in my post is that, as a woman, one notices yet again that the positions one is allowed to negotiate with are few. To be more exact two: the housewife or the radical feminist. There is no middle ground. I'll say nothing about the first, as it's irrelevant for academic contexts. The second position, that of the radical, is often linked with the misconstrued conception that feminism has to do with creating a world without men in it. The simple fact, however, is that the goal of feminism is to eradicate all forms of oppression. In this light, I'm amazed that the whole world is not already feminist. So, I would urge you to change your perspective.

In repsonse to your second point, I'll have to ask in return: what makes you think that women want to transform men into children, or into anything else for that matter?

Truly intelligent men know exactly when silence is called for, when it's appropriate, and what discursive power it has in relation to women who merely ask that they participate in the symbolic power that men enjoy, without having to be called mad as hatters, radicals, maniacs, odd, obssesive, and so on, whenever they express a merely commonsensical point. Can we have some plain recognition of our basic intelligence without such listed above epithets?

I've been waiting for philosophers to formulate something really interesting about that middle ground, and some have already (just look at Derrida), but it seems that more calculations are needed. Perhaps mathematicians such as yourself will come up with some clever algorithms that will unmask the stupidity in silence, the stupidity in ignoring the other without cause, and the stupidity in making inferences that are based on mythologizing the feminine.

This being said, keep up the poetry.
Bent said…
As for bottom lines this one ("on the question of agency: when women call the agency bluff, men go silent - or deaf") seems particularly non-elastic. However, you are certainly right that men tend to go deaf when faced with irrefutable evidence that they are wrong. It is the last recourse to agency left them...
Anonymous said…
I raised that point because, unfortunately and more often than not, the relationship between man and woman has reduced to cunning interludes of power establishment. It is an opinion entirely based on my own observations . . . I do not have any credible basis, statistical (if that is credible!) or otherwise, to back this opinion!
You are quite right about establishing the relation between correct silence and intelligence. I completely agree with you.
What impresses me most is your discerning opinion about the intersection of the non-radical and the non-oppressed.
I would retire by saying that feminism cannot be a word that goes on to mean eradication of all forms of oppression. That word would be egalitarianism, right? Using feminism with to mean propagation of lack of oppression should not cause any discomfort theoretically, but the process reeks of, and is reminiscent of, political strategies!
Camelia said…
Ritwik, thanks for that. One question though. Is there anything that is not political already? One of feminism's biggest insights is that particularly symbolic power is more political than any other power. This power calls for analysis that unmasks what legitimizes it. To give you an example: among the staff in the 4 programs at my dept. only the philosophers walk together as a group to the cafeteria for lunch. As it happens most of them are young, tall, and dashing. Yesterday I saw 6 of them flocking down the alley, strutting their stuff. And as always, I told myself: ‘what a mighty sight.’ A pack of 6 can conjure a lot of power. At first this vision made me laugh, as I tried to imagine the staff in the English program inspiring in anybody such awe that comes close to a scene from The Untouchables. I had a hard time seeing how an Americanist Jewish Romanian refugee alongside her colleagues - a laid-back but beautiful red-haired Australian socio-linguist, a close to retiring flamboyant, but classy and elegant grammar professor, a lesbian post-colonialist, and a medievalist, our British studies shepherd of the flock could exude power if we were to walk together to any place.

My point is that what I want for women and other odd ones is to be able to enjoy a similar, if artificial, symbolic power as the philosophers do without having to lift a finger to ensure that everybody notices. I like what Thatcher used to say: ‘being powerful is like being a lady; if you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.’ Of course, what Thatcher relies on is the silence that confers power to the unsaid. I wonder what would happen if we were to translate this philosophy of being powerful via image rather than intelligence into cultural studies. If not an awesome idea then surely a marvelous one as it allows us not only to imagine ourselves as commanders or fleets consisting of balloons, but also to show others that diversity – being that woman – need not always appear as a question mark at the end of the perennial line pertaining to the marginalized, 'what are we going to do with you?', but as a dash that unites the dome of power with the doomed.

If this is too convoluted I can put it this way: I like philosophers, and the ones that work at Roskilde U are all fine researchers. Interestingly enough, however, while the moralists (the ones researching in ethics) might be expected to engage with the predicament of women, they are in fact more interested in whether it is morally defensible to shoot some bullets in Iraq. The formalists are more into counting, but it ain't the kind that relates to reducing the number of fallacious syllogisms such as these ones: a dashing tall man walks; he is a philosopher; therefore he is intelligent and powerful; and, a dashing woman walks; she is not a philosopher; therefore she is available.

I'm tempted to say: feminists must work on their image, but that would be too simplistic. In any event, such an image should suggest more than the symbolic power that merely relies on iconicity, privilege, pomp, and strategies of self-staging.
Anonymous said…
That was a beautiful answer Camelia. I find myself agreeing to almost everything you have said, and I am not sure what it is in the answer that I am not quite in accord with.

It is, hence, a beautiful answer.

It is, in spite of it, a beautiful answer.

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