Contents Disappointed Utopia 6. Whose Utopia Is This?

Ultra-masculinist attitudes everywhere

Taken on its own terms, the ritual spectacle of utopianism seemed agonistic but open-ended. Yet agonism and rupture are themselves overdetermined, and importantly, gendered forms. Perhaps we should read utopianism, too, as a scene of the exchange of masculine ambivalence. Of course, it was not only male philosophers who participated in the local logic of aggressive riposte. Political agonism and vigorous debate are French customs not to be read solely in gendered terms. And yet in the Philosophy Department, the actors of local conflicts were mostly men, and open aggression remained male-coded.

Masculinist agonism was at once an enabling and limiting form. It enabled certain passions of critique and disagreement to come out. Yet it also served, rather like the “hermeneutics of suspicion” in Eve Sedgwick’s theory of paranoid reading (2003), to prevent bad surprises and to protect local narratives. One possible bad surprise, in this context, would have been the surprise of feminist politics, which threatened the traditional male aesthetics of French political writing. As we have seen, feminist students were openly critical of masculinist culture; and in my interview with Jocelyn, the Declaration became a case in point.

We were talking about the Philosophy Department.
Jocelyn: There are ultra-masculinist attitudes, and you find them everywhere, actually… It’s aberrant. You know, it’s aberrant. It’s really aberrant. I remember, when they were writing their Declaration of Rights, their whatsit thing on the field, that I got involved. And I told them, no, you have to feminize the language; [I pointed out] there’s the word “man.” And you know — I got laughed at. It made them laugh out loud, actually laugh out loud. Right away they said: putting human [instead of man], human is ugly. I mean, seriously, for profs — I find this unacceptable.

In spite of this critique, the word “man” did remain in the final version of the Declaration, an index of the historical force of left patriarchy in French philosophy. It is revealing that the reaction to feminist critique was immediate and devastating. Laughter sought to put this woman in her place: a place of silence. I suspect that in the end, the masculine laughter also was a laughter of recognition. It was a tacit admission that the feminist critique of “man” was, in truth, unanswerable. And then it was as if the visceral energy of laughing out loud could fill the gap that had appeared in the comfortable historical masculinism of this utopian project. Afterwards, of course, the rationalizations came out in full force. “Human” — the nongendered alternative — was ruled out on aesthetic grounds, called “ugly.”

There were women who had participated in the writing of the Declaration, and it sought to be inclusive. It mentioned “All men and all women” in Article II, and insisted in Article III that the university was open to all regardless of “their social or national origins, their religious and ethnic belonging, their age and their sexual identity.” This was a universalism that recognized difference in the process of seeking to include it institutionally. But the point is not just whether the text itself was maximally inclusive. The question of feminism was above all a question about who could have input into the writing of the Declaration, and within which codes.

Perhaps the heart of this masculinism was not the stubborn investment in “man” as a beautiful word for the universal subject. It was rather the all-too-familiar power to be able to determine the codes within which universality could be written. Ultimately, patriarchy is always power. Patriarchy in this Philosophy Department was not just a code, it was a right to choose the code, to police the code, and to laugh at outsiders seeking to change the code. Patriarchy was scorn plus power — the power to not change and to keep the narrative in place.[7] In Jocelyn’s encounter with male laughter, masculine scorn was a strategy for not needing to reopen the narratives that philosophers told about themselves. This narrative defensiveness was suggestive of a threatened masculinity whose underlying vulnerability could turn to aggression.

Scornful masculinity is not in itself a utopian form, even if it may defend utopian ideals. The masculinist scorn that defended the Declaration of Independence was not only directed towards feminists. It also took aim at the male students who wrote the Counter-Declaration. Peg, one of the Counter-Declaration’s authors, was denounced by Marcel, who had in turn been involved in writing the Declaration.

Eli: What I understand about Peg is that he’s there to apply the Department’s own principles to itself.
Marcel: Most of the time he’s facile. Because in fact he’s not doing the work [il bosse pas]. Not just because he’s authoritarian, but because he doesn’t read, or doesn’t read much. And he doesn’t do the work because he doesn’t read. It’s unclear, but that’s my sense. And he never puts his own positions in question. He makes the most facile critique, the simplest, the least effective one. And he’s dumber for it…
And that’s before adding that he produces nothing — which I could also say for myself. In the end, from a certain perspective, he’s unable to say anything whatsoever. He’s incapable of saying yes or no, he has to go see what someone else says… He thinks he has to outdo everyone else’s follies [il faut aller plus loin dans le délire de l’autre]… It’s utterly pointless.

It is telling that, in his criticism of Peg, Marcel himself became ambivalent: he had to acknowledge that some of his complaints about Peg also applied to himself. Just as Peg “produced nothing,” so too did Marcel reproach himself for not writing enough, not publishing enough. This was, in the end, a barely autonomous zone within academic capitalism, and these philosophers, too, had their imperatives to produce. The Philosophy Department’s voluminous textual production kept it alive in a neoliberal, heavily audited university system. But not everything counted as “production”: apparently Peg’s Counter-Declaration was considered a mere pamphlet, not a serious exercise in philosophy. I confess I still do not really know how to tell the difference. It remains clear nevertheless that the moment of the Declaration of Independence was a moment where disappointment and scornful agonism crept into the scenes of utopian speech.

  1. The feminist critique of the Department also had its own scorn. From a feminist perspective, it was the Department itself that was “aberrant,” “shocking,” and “out of bounds.” It was as if, by this point in history, in a French public institution, one should have been able to expect better, above all from the authority figures. In this sense, the scorn directed at feminists was soon directed back at the Department itself. But the meaning of scorn depends primarily on the power and position of those who deploy it, and in this sense, subaltern feminist scorn had nothing in common with institutional scorn of feminists.  ↩

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