Wednesday, June 27, 2012

A Place At The Table

I am in Northfield, Minnesota at St. Olaf College, at the Howard and Edna Hong Kierkegaard Library, where I am currently a Summer Fellow. As some of my readers may know, I’ve been in love with Kierkegaard since my sophomore year at Hope College. After encountering the great Dane’s work in my Modern Philosophy class with Jim Allis, I found myself reading Fear and Trembling on the beach over the summer, and subsequently changed my major. Reading Kierkegaard changed my life, not just in terms of choosing a career path, but more importantly in offering up language and ideas that enabled me to wrestle with the faith of my childhood when I was unable to see a way forward on my own.

That is an abbreviated back story to what’s been on my mind today, in my research at the library and in the workshop I attended this afternoon with the other Summer Fellows and the Young Scholars. My project here is still taking shape, but at the very least I can say that it continues some of the work I began in my masters thesis at Duke, which focused on Kierkegaard’s Works of Love (hereafter abbreviated WL). I attempted to read WL alongside one of Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous works, Stages on Life’s Way (hereafter abbreviated SLW), in a rather different way than most scholars of his work. My basic starting point was that WL is a book primarily concerned with Christian discipleship, rather than mere philosophical and/or theological speculation. Ergo, rather than arguing for a specific point within the texts themselves, I argued for a reading of WL and SLW in which the various characters Kierkegaard inhabits in SLW embody flawed attempts at love that provide an instructive contrast with the discourses in WL.

That also is an abbreviation, and doesn’t do either of the texts (or even my own thesis) justice, but for our current purposes it will do just fine. With my advisor’s blessing I was able to propose a reading of the texts that I considered to be both faithful and edifying, without stressing over the body of scholarship that assumes an alternate (possibly misguided) interpretation of both texts. I realize now that this was an ambitious project for a masters student; I’m glad I didn’t know then what I know now, or that I was willing to ignore some of what I did know for the sake of the paper I felt I needed to write.

Now. “What does all of this have to do with the femmonite?” you might be asking. For starters, the pseudonymous text I took on in my thesis, SLW, and the work I’m focusing on in my work here, Either/Or (hereafter EO), are both full of material ripe for feminist deconstruction. Furthermore, Kierkegaard himself, like his contemporaries, is a “product of his time” (to use the popular turn of phrase too often employed to let a thinker of the hook for being a misogynist), and even WL -- a text that I deeply love -- can’t be read by anyone with a feminist consciousness without sometimes wanting to throw it across the room. This thinker who I love -- who has formed much of my theological imagination -- is flawed. And so, my first question today (and the coming weeks) is this: How am I to make sense of my love for Kierkegaard’s work, and the ways it informs my own, and what am I to do in general when trying to glean knowledge from imperfect -- mostly male -- philosophers and theologians of the past?

This morning I stumbled on a text by Celine Leon, called The Neither/Nor of the Second Sex: Kierkegaard on Women, Sexual Difference, and Sexual Relations. It’s an excellent companion to my research on EO. In the preface to the book she asks, “Should a philosopher -- rather than be excused by a contextualization that makes him a victim of the biases of his time -- not be held responsible for having unquestioningly embraced the stereotypical viewpoints that circulated around him?” She goes on to note both that the true test of any philosophy is that it welcomes careful criticism. And so, because I love his work, in the coming weeks I hope I can hold Kierkegaard responsible for the things he has written, just as I expect to be held responsible for my own words.

The second question on my mind in a lived question. I think Kierkegaard would approve of that, even if my particular lived experience is one that at best never would have occurred to him, and at worst he would have considered ridiculous in the first place, given that it’s situated in my context a woman philosopher -- something I don’t think he would have taken seriously.

Here’s the scene: I arrive at the library this morning, and have to walk through a lounge full of twenty-something aged young men who are scattered around the ever-flowing coffee pot. Once I cut a path through the wilderness of testosterone and caffeine, I enter the library itself, and take a seat across from a few more young men, and  proceed to read Leon’s aforementioned book on the second sex. My point should be obvious.

There are other women in the program of course, thank God, but we are vastly outnumbered. Looking at the list of Summer Fellows and Young Scholars prior to this week I had noticed this fact, but I didn’t realize just how lopsided it would feel to be back among the philosopher crowd  24/7 until everyone arrived.

Flash forward to this afternoon, when we were all to attend a workshop with John Davenport from Fordham. Workshop content aside (I had mixed reactions) what most concerned me, again, was the gender dynamic in the room. The set up was such that there was an inner circle at the table, and various seats scattered around behind. The Summer Fellows were invited to sit at the table, and the young scholars to take the seats that remained. I took my seat and watched people fill in around me -- that is to say, I watched the men fill in around me. When about twenty of them had done so, I motioned several times to a couple of other women to grab the remaining seats. After a bit of encouragement they slid into the last two chairs.

It has been a long time since I have been so acutely, physically aware that I am taking part in a masculine conversation, that my place at the table has been questionable throughout the history of philosophy, that even if no one would dare question my place at the table now (at least not strictly on the basis of gender), I am nonetheless being invited into the conversation on someone else’s terms. I am allowed to be here, if I play by the rules. (If you’re wondering why I brought up my thesis, perhaps you can see now. I did not play by the rules when I wrote it.)

Sitting in the inner circle, on the fifth floor of the English department at St. Olaf, I realized -- maybe for the first time -- that in such situations there are always two trains of thought in my head. I can never be focused only on the actual material at hand. At least half of my brain is engaged with the intense emotional energy it takes just to hold my place at the table, to own it, to be there fully and deservedly, not timidly, not wondering whether I am really as smart as those around me.

I left exhausted, though not because of the mental rigor of the conversation. It was an interesting talk, but personally I didn’t find it mind blowing. It did more to reinforce my existing viewpoints on EO an SLW than to challenge them, though I appreciate and respect Davenport’s work. The exhaustion was all a result of holding the space. I had forgotten -- or maybe simply not allowed myself to notice in the past -- just how draining it is to maintain my confidence in such a setting, especially after having spent the morning reading Kierkegaard’s pseudonyms, who mostly insist that women are all heart, not intellect.

As I walked down the hill from campus to Finholt house, at first I found myself thinking things would be easier if I wasn’t constantly aware of these dynamics. But then I realized that’s simply not true. For me, the only reason I have been able to persevere and be here (here meaning as a woman in academia) is that I am aware of these dynamics. If I was not, I would have given up a long time ago, claiming -- and probably honestly believing -- I quit because I don’t have what it takes.

Being here I have felt that ugly inferiority complex knocking on the door, and it takes everything I have to keep it out sometimes. That challenge may never leave me. The patronizing male colleagues probably aren’t going anywhere, either. But as someone who is aware of all of this, it means something to invite someone else to slip into those empty seats at the table next to me. It means something to refuse to abandon philosophy to one half of the population, the half who finds me cute and amusing but can’t quite believe I also have a brain.

I’m not going anywhere. I’ve got work to do, and if you find that amusing you are the one who has a lot to learn.