Canonized Thoughts, or Thoughts on the Canon
In 2013, I applied to the Graduate Program in Philosophy at The New School for Social Research. I had for some time nourished a persistent fantasy regarding that specific program at that specific school. My fantasy regarded the canon. At The New School, I imagined, the philosophical canon is surely heavily contested, at times even rejected, but most importantly creatively reassessed. Nothing could have prepared me for the surprise I experienced beginning the master’s program in philosophy last fall. Most courses focused on specific thinkers: Deleuze, Gramsci, Merleau-Ponty, Spinoza, Aquinas, Foucault, Wittgenstein, Adorno; all courses focused almost exclusively on dead cis-gender white men.
What an old boring second wave observation! you might be thinking while reading this. Isn’t the most important thing how, and not what we read? Can’t we just read the same old things as long as we spice them up with some critical commentary here and there to prove that we do realize that Kant was racist, that Foucault was sexist, that Heidegger was antisemitic? These were questions we frequently discussed this spring in the “Philosophy and Literature” seminar taught by Chiara Bottici, and our discussion became particularly vivid during our fourth week of class when we read Machiavelli, someone who lingers at the outskirts of the Western philosophical canon.
Some days I am better built for engaging with the Western canon than other days, and those other days when I’m worse equipped, I have trouble maintaining enough strength to remain within the discourse of activity where I need to stay in order to perform the only thing (action) I can while reading Machiavelli — critique. But nothing bores me more than critique, and nothing exhausts me more than masculinist ideals of activity, so on those other days I seek refuge from this canon, from those critiques.
Some days, those other days that is, I can’t shake the feeling that reading elaborately sexist texts contaminates not only my thinking, but my way-of-being. Perhaps I should have learned by now that the system, as Luce Irigaray thoroughly reminds us, has no outside that I can strive toward reaching; but it does have a nasty center that I can strive toward avoiding. No matter how many feminist analyses I read that skillfully dissect any given canonized text in an attempt to cleanse myself of the phallologocentrism imposed by the works constituting the Western philosophical canon, I still feel dirty.
Femininity for Machiavelli, as argues Hanna Fenichel Pitkin, is characterized by its all-encompassing, natural, eternal qualities, and feared for the same reasons. The men in Machiavelli’s world are threatened by the mythological element of femininity. In the same way as logos had to insert a clean break between itself and mythos in order to come into being, masculinity has constituted itself at the expense of erasing femininity, its source and predecessor. Machiavelli’s men are threatened by the passivity suggested by femininity, by the temptation it suggests; if they don’t stay constantly alert and active, they might just lose themselves in the passions, in the passivity suggested by the mere presence of feminine figures. Besides the question of who and what we read, we have in the “Philosophy and Literature” seminar also asked: “Who can write what?” Who in this case is Machiavelli, and he can write about rape and make it sound consensual.
Today is one of those other days where my permissiveness is low, and I am wondering what good having read The Mandrake and The Prince is to me? And further, when will we start reading other texts? Of course, you, as well as I, as well as The New School for Social Research, already know the answer to these questions: we will read other texts when it is possible to read other texts and still get by; when it is possible to be more interested in thinking than in money. Perhaps it already is; perhaps it is just hard to realize when enshrouded in readings of Deleuze, Gramsci, Merleau-Ponty, Spinoza, Aquinas, Foucault, Wittgenstein, Adorno, at a private neoliberal institution in the United States of America.