Working Through Political Change

Happy Easter, a good pagan and Christian holiday signifying rebirth, something I take very metaphorically.

Barack Obama’s speech last Tuesday on race could be read in this light as calling for a renewal of the American ideal — a renewal that will require very uncomfortable work: “working through” as a nation the trauma of racism. I blogged about this the other day on the Gender, Race, and Philosophy site, sparking some resistance.

Symposium on “Two Feminisms”

An article of mine that I wrote a few years ago, “Two Feminisms,” found a new life as the subject of the fall symposium of the online journal, Symposia on Gender, Race, and Philosophy. Every season the editors pick an article for a symposium and also four scholars to critique it. Then the author has an opportunity to reply; the reply along with the critiques are posted; and the symposium is open for public commentary. My four interlocutors—Amy Allen, Nancy Bauer, Scott Pratt, and Linda Zerilli—had quite varied responses to the paper, all of which prompted me to put the piece in a broader frame. “Having read my interlocutors, it now occurs to me that …’Two Feminisms’ isn’t about two distinct groups of feminist scholars; it’s about two different conceptions of power and politics.” In the original article and the response, I argue for a model of politics and change that is deliberative in the Deweyan (not Habermasian) sense, a model where change need not come from battling the other but from working on changing the ways in which the larger sociosymbolic system situates us. The deep problem that accompanies injustice is the ways “the system,” and not just segments of society, puts us in “our place.” By moving the focus from primarily particular bad actors to the larger sociosymbolic sphere, I’ve touched some nerves. But this is a discussion worth having.

Five Years

Enough is enough. We are so over Bush. I hear his voice on the radio, his speech on this fifth anniversary of our war in Iraq, saying he doesn’t regret it even though 70% of the American people do. Enough.

This is an all-too-familiar sensation. Most of my teenage and adult life I have had enough—of Nixon, later Reagan, then Bush, even Clinton, and then another Bush. Enough.

I hope this is the end of an era, a bad one, a long one, of politicians who ought to apologize for taking benefits away from poor people, destoying the lives of innocent people, tarnishing America’s name in the world. I’m not naive about the chance that corporate America will relinquish its stranglehold on American democracy, but it would be nice to have some resistance.

I’m hoping.

Barack’s Mother

What an impressive woman Barack Obama’s mother — Stanley Ann Dunham Soetoro — was, much more than just “the white woman from Kansas.”  From today’s New York Times:

Kansas was merely a way station in her childhood, wheeling westward in the slipstream of her furniture-salesman father. In Hawaii, she married an African student at age 18. Then she married an Indonesian, moved to Jakarta, became an anthropologist, wrote an 800-page dissertation on peasant blacksmithing in Java, worked for the Ford Foundation, championed women’s work and helped bring microcredit to the world’s poor.

She died at 53 from ovarian cancer, but what a difference she made in her short but intense life, a difference that may carry on in the values she instilled in her two children, one who just might become President.

Beyond the Academy Conference June 9-10

Check out the call for abstracts for an upcoming conference that I am helping organize,

Beyond the Academy: Engaging Public Life
Call for Abstracts
June 9-10, 2008
George Mason University Arlington CampusMeeting just outside the nation’s capital in the midst of a presidential campaign year, public scholars from across the country will discuss the ways in which their work is more than “academic,” how it helps strengthen democratic institutions and public life and can bring about civic change. To be considered for the program, send a 450-550 word abstract by April 28 to nmcafee@gmu.edu with the subject line “public scholars.” Possible topics include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Reclaiming the civic mission of the university
  • The incentive structure of university scholarship
  • The self-understanding of scholars and their relationship to the public
  • How to be the public’s allies in democratic work
  • What kind of research does a democratic public need?
  • Organic vs. traditional scholarship: How does Milton matter?
  • Assessing the engaged campus movement
  • Independent scholars, the academy, and the public
  • the multiple ways communities, individuals and non-academic institutions contribute to public knowledge (e.g., film festivals, literary festivals, literacy initiatives)
  • Advocacy versus Engagement
  • Book sessions

The conference will begin late in the day on June 9 and continue all day June 10. For more information visit the conference site.

March 11

All day yesterday I kept looking at the date, March 11, March 11, March 11, and thinking: why does this date mean something to me? Is it a friend’s birthday?   3/11.   March 11.   A blank.

Today it just hit me, March 11, 2004, the day of the Madrid train bombings, the day I heard the resounding echo of the repetition compulsion of trauma, the calamity and destruction that seem to know no end; the day I heard a Spanish minister promising to hunt Spain’s enemies down, annihilate them, never talk with them. And I wondered, will this never end?

That day I started writing a book — Democracy and the Political Unconscious — that’s about to be published by Columbia University Press, a book that tries to fathom the roots of terror and trauma and possible avenues for working through it all and getting past the repetition compulsion also known as the endless war on terror.

I began writing this book on the day of the Madrid bombings, when it seemed that the clash of civilizations between East and West was suffering a repetition compulsion, with each side promising to annihilate the other and both sides vowing to kill rather than ever talk. Why not talk? I wondered. Why this thought that talking with perpetrators was a kind of caving in, a submission, a negotiation (as in, “we do not negotiate with terrorists”)? Why the terrible apprehension about engaging the other? What was going on, to put it boldly, in the world’s political unconscious? How might we get out of this seemingly endless cycle of traumas and repetitions, this endless war on terror? Putting these questions in this way, as addressed to national and even global psyches, calls for an answer that is bold, even preposterous. It calls for mapping out and conceptualizing the subterranean repressions, longings, and misconceptions of a political unconscious. At the same time it call for teasing out the potential within the political unconscious for democratic transformations.

Four years later, the book is now a few days away from publication. And four years later it’s clear that war has indeed only furthered these repetitions. It’s time to start talking with each other; it’s time to aim for democratic change and engagement, not more death and destruction.

Val Plumwood

The feminist philosophy community is mourning the loss of Val Plumwood. I wish I’d known her. The Canberra Times reports,

A renowned ecofeminist who survived a harrowing crocodile attack in the mid-1980s has been found dead at her property near Braidwood, possibly falling victim to a snake bite.

Val Plumwood’s body was found on Saturday afternoon at her home.

Police have said there are no suspicious circumstances.

An autopsy will be carried out to determine the exact cause of death but it is thought she died as a result of heart failure, possibly arising from an insect or snake bite.”

And on the FEAST list, Joan Callahan wrote,

I’d like to add my own deep sense of loss to the news of Val Plumwood’s death. In addition to being the singular scholar Chaone notes, she was an extremely interested and interesting person. She happened to stay at my farm one time, and I found her in the early morning out playing her tin whistle for the horses. They were mesmerized, as was I. She said that she lived in the outback with no cats or dogs, because they were predators and she wanted the ordinary animals of that place to stay living there. If, as the story has it, she was whisked off the planet by a snake, there is every reason to believe she would have considered that fitting.