Woman Carrying a Phallus
Greece: Early Classical, Attica
Circa 480-450 BCE © aras.org
EssaysSex & Gender

What’s Left After Penis Envy?

I am teaching a course called “Feminism and Literature” at the New School that explores how literature can articulate feminist claims in the public sphere. One of the problems we discussed is whether the language we are currently using, as well as the imaginary that sustains it, are actually adapted to this task. In order to debate the issue, one of the classical texts that I assigned to my students was Freud’s essay on “femininity.” I chose this text because I wanted my students to be aware of the risks we take when we look at femininity (and female sexuality) from the point of view of masculinity (and male sexuality); Freud’s idea that women have to go through a phallic phase in order to become truly feminine – and that, as a consequence, they have to abandon their childish clitoral pleasure in favor of a more mature vaginal one – seemed to me rather questionable. Is it true that the clitoris is an “atrophied penis” and that it is only by abandoning “wholly” or “in part” the pleasure that comes from it that a “normal femininity” can be developed? Are not the clitoris and the vagina just two names that we assign and use to separate what is actually part of the same unitary body? These are the sorts of questions that I was hoping the text would raise (and indeed it did), and that would lead us to quickly dismantle Freud in favor of a more complex view of female sexuality. In particular, I was hoping to get rid of what seemed to me the most untenable of his positions: the idea that the small size of their so-called atrophied penis (the clitoris) is at the basis of a fundamental and inevitable penis envy in women.

Amygdala activation and perspective taking in relation to empathy. © Jean Decety | Decety Lab
EssaysIn DepthThe Psyche

The Attack on Empathy

I feel for Jeremy Rifkin. In 2010, Rifkin, a public intellectual and best-selling author, published a remarkable book titled The Empathic Civilization. In it, Rifkin argues (1) that humans are soft-wired for empathic feelings toward others and that (2) this potential has to be fostered if we are to survive, as a species, on our precious little planet. The book is a tour-de-force, in which ideas, data from various disciplines and anecdotes are built upon to make a case for empathy. Rifkin is not always very precise, or even correct in reporting scientific findings, but by and large his thesis holds. Empathy is good for you, and for others, and as a society we should do our best to foster it. Yet, Rifkin’s ideas have been the target of a rather intense attack by several eminent scholars, notably psychologists Paul Bloom and Steven Pinker, and philosopher Jesse Prinz. What’s not to agree with in Pinker’s ideas?

Bloom, Pinker and Prinz, echoed by New York Times’ columnist David Brooks, do not think that we should rely on empathy to build a better world. Let’s review some of their ideas.

A good start is Brooks’ article. The article elicited a host of reactions among readers and, not surprisingly, among scholars who formally study empathy. These scholars saw decades of research findings dismissed in an 800-word piece destined to a reading public of hundreds of thousands. Brooks builds his argument “against” empathy from Steven Pinker’s last book (The Better Angels of Our Nature) and a chapter by Jesse Prinz, titled “Is Empathy Necessary for Morality.” The latter is a concise piece, which can be easily read over a 6 oz cup of coffee. Pinker’s is an 800-pages book, which deals with much more than this specific question, and requires a several gallons of coffee, and a great deal of determination, to be conquered.

Shulamith Firestone (circa 1970). © Unknown | RIP futurist Shulamith Firestone, who hailed artificial wombs and cybernetics as tools of liberation
EssaysThe Left

Rethinking the Split Between Feminists and the Left

The recent death of Shulamith Firestone marks a milestone in the history of second wave feminism, and encourages an historical perspective. Firestone was one of the most inspired and original political intellectuals of the sixties, and a founder of the modern feminist movement. I can speak personally here of the impact of Firestone’s Dialectic of Sex (1970) on my own life. When I first read the book, upon its publication, I immediately recognized that its portrait of a universal system of male domination rooted in the family was both the most important challenge to the Marxism that had shaped my worldview, and an equally important corrective to its blind spots. My 1972 book, Capitalism, the Family and Personal Life began as a review of Firestone’s work and proposed both to answer and to learn from it.

In a recent New Yorker (April 15, 2013) Susan Faludi provided a powerful and moving account of Firestone’s brief, brilliant career and its tragic aftermath.Firestone was only twenty-five years old when she published Dialectic of Sex.


San Francisco Bay Area Anarchist Bookfair poster from 2008 (cropped).  © A Syn | Flickr
EssaysIn DepthLiberal Democracy in Question

Against Anarchism

For Edward J. Snowden and Chelsea Manning (formerly Bradley): Heroes of transnational publicity — in gratitude and with admiration.

One strategy for reimagining public sphere theory in the current conjuncture is neo-anarchism. Distrustful of global governance institutions, and of the expert networks entangled with them, this approach looks to anti-systemic movements as agents of transformation. Valorizing the independent militancy of Occupy, WikiLeaks, and the World Social Forum, it affirms efforts to build counterhegemonic centers of opinion and will formation, far removed from circuits of institutionalized power. Aiming to counter the hierarchical logic of administrative rule, it seeks to reconstruct public sphere theory in a way that gives pride of place to autonomous direct action by subaltern counterpublics and “strong” (decision-making) publics in civil society. Where else, after all, are we likely to find democratizing forces that can advance the theory’s ideals under current conditions?

Turkish Flag © Bahar | Wikimedia Commons
EssaysLiberal Democracy in Question

Ten Theses on Constitutional Change in Turkey

1. This, the current Constitution of the Republic of Turkey is no longer the same constitution, the Constitution of 1982. Yes, even partial, but sequential or re-iterated rounds of amendment can produce a new constitutional regime or material constitution. This is what happened in Turkey through amendment rounds in 1987, 1995, 2001, and 2004. It was under European pressure in the first decade of the 21st century that the demand for formal constitutional replacement was adopted by Turkish political actors, supposedly in the place of the method of sequential amendments. Was the idea of an entirely new, civilian constitution wrong? No, for two reasons. The first is the problem of legitimacy, caused by tainted origins. This problem undermines the necessarily preservationist review function of the Constitutional Court. The second is the problem of freezing. Some features of constitutions, though formally changeable, are never sufficiently altered in reform, because incumbents significantly benefit from them.

John Dewey in 1902. © Eva Watson-Schutze | Morris Library, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale

John Dewey in China


Front cover art for the book Eichmann in Jerusalem written by Hannah Arendt. © Penguin Books | Wikimedia Commons
EssaysLiberal Democracy in Question

Thought-Defying Evil

In the summer of 1945 Melvin Lasky, who was stationed in Germany with the American occupation forces, visited Karl Jaspers. Lasky, a correspondent for the Partisan review, mentioned the name of Hannah Arendt. Jaspers had lost contact with Arendt since 1938 and was stunned to discover that she was still alive. He asked Lasky if he could write to her through the American military post. This was the beginning of a renewed a correspondence that had begun in 1926 when Hannah was Jaspers’ student. Their friendship deepened over the years with many personal visits. Their correspondence, which lasted until 1969, reads like an epistolary novel where the full humanity and the intellectual vigor of each is intimately revealed. The correspondence ultimately included exchanges with their spouses, Gertude Jaspers and Hienrich Blücher. One of the most charming letters is dated November 18, 1945 where Hannah, who started sending food packages to the Jaspers, instructed Gertude about how to fry American bacon. “Put the slices in a moderately hot pan and fry over a low flame. Keep pouring the fat until the slices are crisp. Then nothing can go wrong with either the fat or the bacon” (Arendt and Jasper 1992: 24). But from the beginning Jaspers and Arendt exchanged their views on much more weighty topics.

Innovation Overload © Ximagination | Dreamstime.com

Innovation Overload

Every era defines its heroes. Ours is currently fixated on the innovating entrepreneur, creating something new that everyone must have. This type breaks the mold, striking out alone, even leaving school to do so. He (and he is usually a he) is designated as brilliant, sometimes charismatic, sometimes argumentative, often solitary in his vision, though gathering a team to put his vision into practice. His skills are more technical than poetic, more digital than prosodic. Neither poetry, nor prose is, by definition, entrepreneurial.

It’s important to have such innovators, but they are not necessarily heroic and they are not good role models for the millions of people already in the labor market looking desperately for work in an era of job contraction. Nor are they a good role model for the thousands of high school and college graduates entering the labor market each year.