Leah Werier, Art History, PhD ’18 and 2016-2017 Graduate Fellow and Alessia Palanti, Italian, PhD candidate and 2016-2017 Graduate Fellow
Friedrich Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals is one of the texts that is intrinsic to the syllabus of the Columbia core class “Contemporary Civilizations”. Nietzsche was a German philosopher famous for his critical writing on morality, religion, philosophy, and prevalent social and political ideas of the late 19th century. On April 21st, Bernard Harcourt, the Isidor and Seville Sulzbacher Professor of Law and Political Science, Columbia University, spoke to core students, instructors and graduate students on Nietzsche as part of IRWG’s Feminist to the Core Series.
Feminist to the Core is a series which aims to give the audience feminist tools to challenge, critique, rethink and engage with Core texts. Spring semester programs featured , Bernard Harcourt, the Isidor and Seville Sulzbacher Professor of Law and Political Science, on Friedrich Nietzsche and Jack Halberstam, Visiting Professor of IRWGS and English and Comparative Literature on Freud.
In his program on Nietzsche, Professor Harcourt sought to question how one could engage with Nietzsche’s texts as a feminist. Nietzsche is not a scholar known for his feminist leanings. At the beginning of Beyond Good and Evil,Nietzsche writes, “Suppose truth is a woman—what then?” “Woman” is presented as a metaphor, a means for Nietzsche to present gender driven reflections. With this in mind, Harcourt discussed Jaques Derrida, the French philosopher known for developing deconstruction, for it is Derrida who wrote Spurs: Nietzsche’s Styles. Derrida notes that “woman” in Nietzsche’s writing is a challenge; using deconstruction he aims to shed light and move beyond Nietzsche’s writings about women as only sexist. Harcourt explained that interpretations impose on practices, and Derrida’s deconstruction elucidates that statements can be a reflection of what we as readers are doing.
Harcourt also introduced Luce Irigaray whose book, Marine Lover: Of Friedrich Nietzsche, published in 1980, is a written confrontation with Nietzsche’s text and ideas. Irigaray addresses Nietzsche, as if she is his lover, as if he were present, she writes: “You have always trapped me in your web.” Irigaray, would go on to write, This Sex Which is Not One (1985), in which she rethinks “female sexuality” in western philosophical and theoretical discourse. Her questioning results in a reading of Nietzsche, Harcourt argues, where “woman” should really be read as “an object of desire” be it sexual, jealous, or personal. In understanding “woman” in Nietzsche’s writing as an object of desire, one could first confront this, then substitute “object of desire” for woman in the question, “Suppose truth is a woman—what then?” This interpretation allows us to take the passage and reread it, to encounter Nietzsche in new ways. Harcourt concluded that these readings offer ways to confront the question of “woman” in Nietzsche’s writings, and to find a way to “go somewhere productive with it.”
In his program on Sigmund Freud on April 27th, Jack Halberstam argued that Freud creates a language from which we cannot get away, and we have an obligation to contextualize his work and understand our linguistic and theoretical legacy. More directly, according to Halberstam, Freud’s contribution of psychoanalysis to the world is unparalleled, and fundamental in a Gender and Sexuality course.
The most recurrent critique of Freud is of his sexism, which Halberstam challenged by reminding us that, in fact, Freud exposes us to existing systems of thought. Halberstam shared several film and musical clips in order to illustrate Freud’s influence on contemporary popular culture, including a clip from the Pixar animated film, Inside Out. Halberstam further explained that for Freud, no one can arrive at a normative adulthood because there are too many stages that we traverse since childhood that influence our development. Freud exposed us to repression as a mechanism training us to conceal what we are not supposed to feel and express what people want to hear, and furthermore, that this very mechanism is deeply gendered.
Halberstam also shared a clip from the television show, The Sopranos, in which the main character discusses his discovery of repetition compulsion with his psychoanalyst using the example of a bus—wanting to catch the bus but needing to learn to let it go. For Freud, humanity is born immature, which partly explains why things stay the same—we construct systems that are sustained and perpetuated. Tony Soprano parses the very mechanisms of psychoanalytic epiphany followed by disappointment: there is no “cure,” psychoanalysis is an ongoing process.
Halberstam explained that Freud’s Oedipus complex—fear of castration—neatly explained behavioral patterns for boys, but fails to find a correlative paradigm for girls. According to Halberstam, Freud doesn’t know what women want, and never was truly able to exit his own masculine position. However, he devised an understanding of girls as identifying with the mother and desiring their fathers, ultimately wanting to have children.
Halberstam concluded by emphasizing that we cannot excise psychoanalytic thinking—we can explode it on behalf of thinking differently. Halberstam reminds us that we do not live in Freud’s context, but that we inhabit what Paul B. Preciado calls the “pharmaco-pornographic” era, a regime of power and pleasure in which, for example, masculinity is not defined by the fear of castration but by the loss of sexual prowess, which is easily remedied by pharmacological means like viagra; all frailties of masculinity can be fixed with a pill. Finally, Halberstam emphasized that we should not focus our critique of Freud on his misogyny or his sexism, but rather, on his lack of critique of the very gender systems that he exposed; he revealed the mechanisms of the status quo but never challenged them.