John Pistelli


On the Wrong Side of History

[A] state is well constituted and internally strong if the private interest of the citizens is united with the universal goal of the state, so that each finds its fulfillment and realization in the other. This is a proposition of the highest intrinsic importance. But before this unity is brought into being, the state must undergo much struggle with private interests and passions, in a long and hard discipline of them. And the state needs many institutions, devices, and practical arrangements, together with long struggles of the understanding, before it arrives at an awareness of what is appropriate to its goal.
—G.W.F. Hegel, Introduction to the Philosophy of History (trans. Leo Rauch)

Northwestern University Professor Laura Kipnis is now subject to an investigation under Title IX due to an essay she wrote in which, it is alleged, she “retaliated” against a complainant in a case of sexual assault by mentioning said complainant (albeit not by name) in a polemic directed against contemporary attitudes toward sexual coercion on college campuses. As Kipnis explains, the on-campus bureaucracy tasked with enforcing Title IX’s proscription of gender discrimination expanded after the Department of Education Office of Civil Right’s 2011 Dear Colleague Letter enjoining colleges and universities to take greater action against sexual misconduct in their institutions. The letter mentions that schools must be vigilant against retaliation for complaints:

Schools should be aware that complaints of sexual harassment or violence may be followed by retaliation by the alleged perpetrator or his or her associates. For instance, friends of the alleged perpetrator may subject the complainant to name-calling and taunting. As part of their Title IX obligations, schools must have policies and procedures in place to protect against retaliatory harassment. At a minimum, schools must ensure that complainants and their parents, if appropriate, know how to report any subsequent problems, and should follow-up with complainants to determine whether any retaliation or new incidents of harassment have occurred.

In her most recent article detailing the investigation, Kipnis asserts that it is an infringement of her rights to freedom of speech (guaranteed by the First Amendment) and academic freedom (conferred by traditional norms of the research university, though not protected by law). I would like to bracket the details of this case, which I am obviously unqualified to pronounce upon, and ask two questions. What are the grounds of Kipnis’s freedoms? By what right does Kipnis, according to her own allegiances, appeal to them?

According to Hegel, humanity’s attainment of higher and higher levels of self-consciousness lead inevitably to an understanding that ethics are only coherent if understood to be a collective category. The only agency capable of administering the ethical, therefore, is the highest collective agency: the state. Ethical claims staked apart from the state are either mere moralism or else the attempt by private interests to retain pre-modern privileges. The latter is clearly at issue in Kipnis’s appeal to freedom of speech and academic freedom. She draws on a rhetoric of individual freedom devised by Enlightenment-era private proprietors, a freedom whose underside was always those proprietors’ exploitation of subaltern classes. Moreover, she adduces the private morality (academic freedom) of a guild that has often been at odds with the state, but that more importantly serves as a mechanism of unethical social reproduction, unethical because of the well-known unequal outcomes and disparate impacts it generates.

As Ta-Nehisi Coates instructs, the United States led the world in progress with the American Civil War and its belated sequel, the Civil Rights Movement, in both of which events the state recognized that it alone could defend the rights of the exploited and oppressed:

The 20th century, with its struggles for equal rights, with the triumph of democracy as the ideal in Western thought, proved Douglass right. The Civil War marks the first great defense of democracy and the modern West. Its legacy lies in everything from women’s suffrage to the revolutions now sweeping the Middle East. It was during the Civil War that the heady principles of the Enlightenment were first, and most spectacularly, called fully to account.

Claims to sub-state ethical status (i.e., “states’ rights” as against the federal government) in these instances amounted to little more than the defenses of threatened privilege. Insofar as the contemporary (second- and third-wave) feminist movement was inspired by Marxism’s definition of class struggle (with those gendered female defined as an exploited class) and the Civil Rights Movement’s appeal for state action (such that the state is the best enforcer of non-discrimination), then it too is an heir to the Hegelian understanding of history as the redemption of the oppressed through the agency of the state. The new Title IX enforcements may be seen as a further episode in this struggle, in which the state again fights on behalf of the injured against the private interests injuring them. That such claims to injury are not in general to be doubted by members of the injuring class is the implication of Hegel’s famous assertion that the bondsman is the truth of the lord, or, in other words, that exploited and oppressed parties are granted a higher perspective than their masters by the exigencies of their position.

Readers will no doubt object that we postmoderns no longer take Hegel seriously, that we have learned to be skeptical of totalities and teleologies. Kipnis herself told investigators that she takes her bearings from the thought of Foucault, an infamously anti-Hegelian and even anti-Marxist figure who advocated for certain knowledges and subject positions (the mad, the criminal, the queer, etc.) against their subjugation by the sclerotic state and party bureaucracies of the Cold War period. But in so doing, Foucault (and, perhaps more saliently, his followers) brought subjugated knowledges and subject positions, by making them intelligible to academic research, into the dialectical process by which they too could find their ethical destiny as actors within the agency of the state. According to a widely-circulated quotation from his inaugural lecture at the College de France, found here and translated by A. M. Sheridan Smith, Foucault dimly perceived his own role as instrument of history’s cunning:

We have to determine the extent to which our anti-Hegelianism is possibly one of his tricks directed against us, at the end of which he stands, motionless, waiting for us.

Thus, postmodernism should be apprehended as but one moment, and perhaps a bygone moment, in the progressive historical dialectic; thinkers such as Kipnis, who would adduce it in the defense of such traditional privileges as academic freedom, should be understood by the progressive thinker as cases of arrested development. Such thinkers may well be, in one of the President’s favorite phrases, on the wrong side of history.

(I might here note that Kipnis’s repeated use of the “Spanish Inquisition” trope, beloved of Whig history, implies her faithfulness to the belief in historical progress.)

While Kipnis is a popular author, I have never done more than glance through her most well-known writing. Since I research art and politics, the work of hers I am most familiar with is a brief essay from the Autumn 1986 issue of Social Text called “Aesthetics and Foreign Policy.” This essay will illuminate Kipnis’s own ideological grounding, grounding that gives her scant space on which to argue against her investigators. Kipnis in her essay arraigns the entire concept of “the aesthetic,” since, in her account, it serves as a naturalization of the Cartesian subject’s constructed and self-interested posture of disinterestedness. In the guise of aesthetic judgments, the straight white male justifies his political dominance over all others by granting himself the universal privilege of surveying them for their aesthetic capacity. Kipnis frames the essay with an account of how this aesthetic posture enables the capitalist west (defined in Cold War terms) to dismiss the culture of revolutionary Cuba. She concludes by quoting Susan Sontag’s anti-Cuban and anti-communist rhetoric, which she ties directly to Sontag’s aestheticist dismissal of hermeneutics in favor of erotics:

This [i.e., Sontag’s anti-communism] is the triumph of “erotics” over “hermeneutics”: an unfettered subjectivity that utilizes aesthetics as a receptacle for every racist, classist and imperialist received idea, and which, as is true of all aesthetic judgements, asserts a priori a demand for universal assent. The structural similarity between the aesthetic judgement  and ideological interpolation [sic] as described by Althusser and Laclau should be noted. What is Sontag’s” erotics” but the desire for the self-certainty of a subjectivity outside history, a desire to separate experience from knowledge, a desire for the immediacy of the unmediated relation, not only to the work of art, but to all the rest of political and social life as well? This attempt to objectify taste, this staking out of an ahistorical role for the subject, this assertion of a perception which refuses any spatio-temporal location for the knower in the world, her demand for feeling over interpretation is, all very alluring when repackaged as “erotics,” yet when Sontag, who is in fact fond of quoting Benjamin, proclaims that “communism is fascism,” simply because it looks that way to her, this truly is the aestheticization of politics.

The clash between Kipnis’s rhetoric of 1986 and her 2015 defense of erotic license that brought on the Title IX complaint is perhaps too evident an irony to belabor. More impressive is Kipnis’s insistence on the political determinants, thus implicitly the susceptibility to political controls (à la revolutionary governance), of all seemingly subjective judgment. Having derogated disinterestedness, having employed the rhetoric of the redemptive state alliance with the exploited against private privileged actors (e.g., Sontag or herself) and their alibis (e.g., aesthetics or academic freedom), what grounds for grievance does Kipnis have now, except that she never meant the political judgment she recommended to be turned on herself or her guild?

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This entry was posted on 29 May 2015 by in Uncategorized.
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