About the Blog... or, how to fight with dead European white guys

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Welcome! A word of introduction: I'm a first-year graduate student in French, jumping into the deep end with a bunch of courses outside my department - including GWSS 8190: Feminist & Queer Explorations in Troublemaking, for which I have created this blog. I am a visually-oriented, practically-minded person, and as such, I am interested in how we can put theory to good use, which seems more often than not to require ruffling some theoretical feathers.

So let's jump in and start with a syllabus. Not the syllabus for GWSS 8190 - another syllabus, the one for a course I'm taking in the theater department entitled "Performance and Political Modernity." Readings for the first class session:


  • Kant: "What is Englightenment?" "Towards a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose"

  • Mill: from "The Spirit of the Age," and "On Liberty"

  • Hegel: from "The End of Art," "Symbolic, Classic, Romantic," "Dramatic Poetry"

  • Simmel: "The Metropolis and Mental Life"

  • Baudelaire: "The Painter of Modern Life"

  • Marx: "The Communist Manifesto"

  • Weber: from "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism"

What do these readings all have in common? Yeah. They're all written by dead European white guys. I'm not here to critique the syllabus, since I (and the professor of this theater course) believe that it's important to understand where we're coming from in order to be able to critique it. But this critique can come from a variety of different angles, and that's what I want to address in this blog.

The discourse of modernity that these (and many other) dead white gentlemen address is complex and multi-faceted, encompassing issues such as historical progress, the relationship between the private individual and the social sphere, and what it means to be human. I want to focus on one specific element of this discourse: the emphasis on rationality.

For Kant, rationality is a sign of development out of a state of "immaturity," and what's more, is a natural right:

Once nature has removed the hard shell from this kernel for which she has most fondly cared, namely, the inclination to and vocation for free thinking, the kernel gradually reacts on a people's mentality (whereby they become increasingly able to act freely), and it finally even influences the principles of government, which finds that it can profit by treating men, who are now more than machines, in accord with their dignity. What is Englightenment?, 45-6.

Let's unpack this a bit, shall we? Within this one sentence, we discover:
- Rationality is the result of a process (of becoming more than machines).
- This process establishes a developmental hierarchy between the rational and the non-rational.
- Rationality - the result of a higher stage of development - is natural, and therefore desirable, inevitable, and accessible for use in every situation. Kant later makes use of this idea in his theory of a universal history, basing his hypothesis of mankind's progress on the assumption that nature, as an aggregation of human action, will follow a rational course.

My intention here is not to provide an analysis of the concept of rationality in Western thought. That would be impossible. However, the primacy of rationality has been a foundation for many of the thinkers above, and for many more scholars whom I have not cited, as they grapple with questions of freedom and historical development. But to whom does this rationality belong?

John Stuart Mill, when discussing the sovereignty of the individual, uses this provocative qualifier:

We are not speaking of children, or of young persons below the age which the law may fix as that of manhood or womanhood. Those who are still in a state to require being taken care of by others, must be protected against their own actions as well as against external injury. For the same reason, we may leave out of consideration those backward states of society in which the race itself may be considered in its nonage. On Liberty, 136.

On the one hand, Mill reveals himself to be something of a feminist. On the other, he is pretty darn racist as well.

The race side of things is being handled by the aforementioned theater course, in which we will be interrogating what it means to speak of modernity in different locations and whether modernity is a purely Western or European phenomenon. For this class, Feminist & Queer Explorations in Troublemaking, I would like to tackle the issue of modernity from a gender and sexuality perspective. What would it mean to trouble the roots of rationality itself? Given tropes of the "emotional woman," can we say that rationality itself is a gendered concept?

As Dipesh Chakrabarty writes in his introduction to Provincializing Europe, "postcolonial" - and I would add feminist and queer - "scholarship is committed, almost by definition, to engaging the universals - such as the abstract figure of the human or that of Reason - that were forged in eighteenth-century Europe and that underlie the human sciences" (5). I want to try, at least, to engage these universals from a semi-non-rational perspective, although I'm not yet sure how. This project may be in constant flux throughout the semester. My jumping-off point will be a series of responses to established feminist & queer critiques of the rational, but I welcome any suggestions for other directions to take my research, with the central question:

In troubling rationality, how do we open the door for new kinds of productive discourse?

1 Comment

In rereading this introduction, I am struck by how you spend a lot of time discussing (and implicitly critiquing) rationality in terms of its reliance on progress and the mature, developed mind. This fits nicely with our discussion next week (4/14) of the queer child and their growing sideways, as opposed to growing up. In my own work, I am interested in troubling how troublemaking gets read as childish and then as morally (and politically, critically) underdeveloped/immature. What does this reading do to our understanding of troublemaking and its political/ethical potential and to our (de) valuing of children as not-quite-moral/political agents? Does rationality require maturity? Should we redefine/expand rationality beyond this limited version? Or, should we argue for the inclusion of other forms of knowing (maybe like you discuss in your entry about women's ways of knowing) that are not rational, but still important?

I was also struck by Mill's comment about those who need to be cared for/protected are not capable of being (fully?) rational. Is there ever a point when we don't need to be cared for by others? Are children below a certain age (determined by the State), only care-receivers and not care-givers? What would J Butler, with her emphasis in Undoing Gender on the vulnerable self who is always done and undone by others think about this? What about feminist ethics of care folks, like Joan Tronto or Eve Kittay, who emphasize the value of giving and receiving care throughout one's life--do they offer models that trouble rationality?

Okay, one more set of questions: What does it mean to trouble rationality? You suggest at the end of this entry that it is about opening up discourses--for what purpose? Does troubling lead to expanding how we understand rationality? Or is it about dismantling the concept? What other possibilities for troubling can/do you envision?

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This page contains a single entry by Sophie published on February 3, 2010 5:24 PM.

Patriarchal Poetry she did she did. (Gertrude Stein) is the next entry in this blog.

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