Alison Assiter interviewed by Richard Marshall.
Alison Assitergoes all Crazy 88 on the deep philosophical issues of Code Pink and multi-culturalism, Althusser, enlightened women, pornography, Kierkegarrd’s metaphysics and politics, Kierkegaard’s naturalism and relationship to Kant, and love’s passion and deception. Gonzo.
3:AM: What made you become a philosopher? Were you always thinking or did something happen?
Alison Assiter: I don’t remember a ‘sudden conversion’ to philosophy (Heiberg – a Danish Hegelian in the early 19th century is said to have had a ‘conversion’ to Hegelianism!). I remember being obsessed as a teen-ager with Dostoevsky and Sartre and (earlier too) with questions like ‘what ought I to do?’ ‘What kind of things are minds?’ and ‘how did the universe come about?’ but that’s not particularly unusual!
In this piece, I’m referring to a body of work written over a period of many years and I’d like to say at the outset that I was trained as an analytical philosopher – in Oxford, focussing on logic and epistemology – whilst over the years, I’ve become more and more interested and persuaded by theoretical approaches informed by the European continental tradition. There is some cross over today – the work of Robert Brandom and Galen Strawson, for example, as ‘analytical’ philosophers with a predilection for ‘continental’ thinking, although I don’t know whether or not they would be happy to be described that way.
3:AM: Starting with your approach to feminism, you have been scathing about forms of multiculturalism and relativism that have distorted feminist responses to human right violations, including against women, as in your response to Meredith Tax’s article about Code Pink and the Taliban. Can you explain your position here? What’s the problem?
AA: I think your word ‘scathing’ – about multi-culturalism – is a bit strong. Sympathy for multi-culturalism – which had very important and understandable roots – may be one reason why it is difficult for white ‘lefties’ to condemn fundamentalist forms of religion, and particularly fundamentalist Islam. There are a number of problems – if someone says that they have to ‘tolerate’ cultural differences and cultural groupings different from themselves then that may make it difficult, at the same time, to condemn unjust practices within those cultures. Furthermore, from a political perspective, it is important to uphold certain universal principles so that, for example, you can condemn both Islamist forms of violence and injustice as well as forms of violence and injustice from other groups – some superpowers, for example, or the English Defence League, as other examples. The universal concept of a ‘right’ seems to me to be important in this context, although I also believe that it happens to be flawed. I believe, in other words, that a concept that may have some flaws is nonetheless important as a tool to critique abuses on all sides of the political spectrum. In the end, I think that a more useful ‘universal’ concept than that of a ‘right’, though, is a ‘need’.
3:AM: Some might argue that the multiculturalism and relativism that you criticise link with structuralist and post-structuralist inputs to Marxism. You’ve written about Althusser regarding his contribution to Marxism – is this relevant for the debate (about the form radical philosophy and feminism should take) now? Would heeding Althusser avoid the issues you’ve located in the Code Pink issue or is his approach the problem?
AA: My work on Althusser – which was derived from my PhD – was largely (although not entirely) critical. I defended ‘economistic’ and ‘technological determinist’ Marxism against Althusserian Spinozist structuralist inspired Marxism. I analysed some senses in which he was, and others in which he was not, a structuralist. At the time, ‘humanist’ and ‘economistic’ forms of Marxism were derided, as were ‘essentialisms’. I looked at the notion of causation that Althusser deployed, derived from Spinoza, and argued that there are difficulties with it. I suggested, on the other hand, that the area in which his works were most useful, was his work on Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses, derived from his Lacanian reading of Freud. I suggested reading an ISA as a ‘family’ in the broadest sense, that reproduces subjects who are fit for certain types of work in capitalism. The family ISA, moreover, helps reproduce ‘subjects’ who are never pure or non-fragmented.
I think that the Marxism I set out to defend then is entirely compatible with a form of universalism based on needs. I would pay more heed now, than I did then, to the need for some form of democratic framework before the sort of political change that I believed and still believe is necessary and possible can come about.
3:AM: Should we be modernist rather than post modernist feminists, and why/why not?
AA: I would still claim more of an affiliation for ‘modernist’ forms of feminism rather than post -modern forms, partly again for political reasons. The first chapter of my book Enlightened Women is called ‘The Flight from Universals’. I drew an analogy between Humean epistemological scepticism (if that is a fair reading of Hume) and post- modern scepticism about the category of ‘woman’. I thought at the time, and I still hold this view, that there is a logical problem with certain post-modern versions of the construction of the subject. Judith Butler, for example, in her important work Gender Trouble, critiqued the belief that the grammatical formulation of subject and predicate reflects a prior ontological reality of substance and attribute. Her critique of the metaphysics of substance implied, she argued, a rejection of the psychological person as a substantive thing. Identity, she argued, may be a normative ideal and gender an heterosexist construct. More recently she has argued (see 2004) that there are social implications of attempting to assign, as a biological fact about female bodies, the capacity to birth, since it silences those bodies – intersex, transgender and transsexual – that do not fulfil this ‘norm’. This has become very important in the USA at the moment with ‘reclaim the street’ marches on the part of ‘trans’ people.
In response to her, and to this viewpoint, I still believe that it is important, when imagining the construction of a subject, to recognise that there must be some ‘antecedent subject’ be it perhaps a capacity or a power, that engages in the process of constructing the self as a self. The subject of feminism cannot be purely a fiction, as some postmodern writers suggest, produced by the discourses of power. Whilst I would accept some of Butler’s and other post modern inspired criticisms of epistemic foundationalism, it does not seem to me to follow or to be acceptable that one reject all forms of universalism or essentialism.
The universal basis for the categorisation ‘woman’ will, no doubt, be constantly shifting but it is important not to deny it’s existence altogether. There is a partly biological basis for this identification. The ‘nature’ of woman may be conceptualised in the early Greek sense of a force or a power, in its turn shaped by forces outside it, rather than in terms of some set of properties.
If there are more than two sexes, then so be it and, of course, the assumption that there are two helps shape, as many have argued, the binary logic that underpins much of the history of western philosophy. We may, in other words, if it is accepted that there are more than two sexes, have to accept a range of forms of universalism – about humanity as a whole, as well as, in different contexts, believing in universal claims about women and about trans- gendered people.
So, to summarise, whilst I am now much more sympathetic than I was when I wrote Enlightened Women (published in 1996) to Butler’s critique of a substance metaphysic, I don’t think the post modern claims follow. The subject may be shaped by forces outside it but the key external force is nature.
3:AM: At the end of the eighties you wrote about pornography, arguing that banning it was doomed to failure until we got rid of the ills it exemplifies. There’s a shed load more porn now than back then – does that mean we’re getting iller? I guess I’m wondering whether you still agree with your arguments back then or whether the new landscape that may incorporate a new species of porn requires a rethink, both about porn and about what feminists should do in the face of it?
AA: It is really important to remember the context in which I was writing about pornography. Mainly I was concerned, at the time, to counter a very influential strand of feminism – feminist separatism – that was largely UK based and that claimed in part that pornography was at the heart of the ill treatment of women. I received a lot of criticism – some of it, I now feel, understandable – from some feminists who had been sexually abused, as I was thought to be undermining their experience. I now think they had a point with which I did not empathise as fully as I might have done. But I really would prefer not to open those old wounds, which were painful for some of us who were heterosexual as well as for those who were lesbian and for women who had deeply suffered from sexual abuse.
I think that both pornography and the imposition (common in some areas of the world) of a dress code on women are problematic.
3:AM: Your book on Kierkegaard’s metaphysics and political theory is subtitled unfinished selves. This hints at the challenge to a particular ‘metaphysical picture’ of the individual that you think Kierkegaard challenges. Before we look at that, can you say something about this political dimension of Kierkegaard – I thought he didn’t write about politics?
AA: There are many who argue that Kierkegaard’s writing and the political are oxymorons. Kierkegaard is, on this view, essentially a religious thinker and, at best, he was indifferent to the political. At worst, indeed, he was actively against it. He was, it is said, against the French and the Danish revolutions. I believe, by contrast, that Kierkegaard’s work Two Ages: A Literary Review, suggests that a certain notion of the political actually prefigures the religious and, indeed, that this political notion has more in common for him with the relation between a finite limited self and God than the ethical domain of Kant and Hegel does with the religious.
3:AM: You argue that Kierkegaard targets the autonomous, mature and disembodied individual of contemporary, largely liberal, political theory. Can you say more about this individual?
AA: The autonomous subject of liberal political theory is, in its original version, disembodied. This, of course, is not true of all variants of autonomy, but it seems to me that many contemporary versions of the theory suffer from a defect that stems from this original disembodied notion of the subject. Take for example this version: autonomy is the capacity to act on principles that are one’s own and one will exercise this capacity by means of a process of rational reflection on these principles. Autonomy is thought to be necessary for attributing political responsibility. However, there is a tendency, and I think this derives originally from Kant’s formulation, to equate this rational process with a process that is effected when doing good. It is difficult, on the framework therefore, to account for ‘autonomously’ doing wrong. Perspectives like that of Kierkegaard that tend to rely less on a ‘disembodied’ view of the self do not give rise to this problem.
3:AM: Is Kant a major problem according to Kierkegaard’s approach to politics?
AA: I think, following from this, that Kierkegaard both offers an account of the origin of the freedom to do wrong (in CA) that is a counter to Kant’s theory and he critiques Kantian ethics for being too mechanistic, too much like a chess game for really difficult and deep ethical matters. This does not at all, I think, mean that, for Kierkegaard, all ethics has to be ‘teleologically suspended’. Indeed, Kierkegaard thinks that there is an important role for what he calls the ethical. If one is considering the sort of matter I referred to in the first paragraph above, that would be clearly within the ethical. But, he believed, when it comes to deep and difficult ethical matters – such as the relation of an individual to God, or, I think, an individual caught up in the sublimity of a revolution then things are very different and the Kantian ethic is shown to be limited in its value.
But I also think that Kierkegaard, in Works of Love, has an important substantive ethical theory – in terms of loving strangers – to offer that is an alternative to the Kantian or indeed the Utilitarian ethic.
3:AM: So what does Kierkegaard replace this individual with and why is this a superior approach to the liberal one?
AA: So Kierkegaard replaces the autonomous rational individual with a self that is born and that is embodied; it is also partially shaped by forces outside itself – by God – but I read this in a particular way that is very controversial for some Kierkegaardians. God or the Absolute can also be natural, but nature conceptualised in a very particular way that is inspired by Kierkegaard’s relation to Schelling.
3:AM: Onora O’Neil worries that an ethics based on a substantive metaphysical theory won’t be capable of univeralism not because of the ethics per se but because if I may have a different metaphysics. How do you respond to this?
AA: I think there are two different issues here. One is that ethically and politically it is important to face up to the need for a universal perspective in our divided, multi-cultural, unequal and unjust world. Whatever the universal perspective one adopts, it is important to recognise that some form of universalism is politically and ethically necessary. There is also the recognition – pointed out by Hans Jonas, amongst others – that an ethic in a world that is suffering ecologically and environmentally – needs to face up to the fact that it needs to be not only applicable to other humans, but rather it needs to be broader than this.
However, within the limits of the human, it is important to recognise our common humanity. I said above that I think that a perspective based on common human needs has the most chance of being accepted and this does not depend on any particular metaphysical outlook. Secondly, though, although O’Neill is right – if one really believes that the metaphysic one adopts has much to commend it, then one should obviously try to persuade others of its truth or acceptability!
3:AM: Is your approach a form of communitarianism like MacIntyre’s or Sandel’s?
AA: Only if the ‘community’ is the whole of humanity! Mostly I think it is not conceived this way in the communitarian literature.
3:AM: Martha Nussbaum finds the Kierkegaardian idea of ‘loving a stranger’ ‘strangely lonely and hollow’ and so rejects it. Why don’t you find her thinking here compelling? After all, even if relationships between non-strangers are not always good, why should I believe that investing in strangers will be any better? Why isn’t the requirement to ‘love’ here a little too immodest?
AA: I respond to this point of Nussbaum’s in the last chapter of Kierkegaard, Metaphysics and Political Theory. I interpret the notion of ‘loving a stranger’ in the sense of ‘agape’ – the intentional attempt to promote well being. Nussbaum herself has a response to her own point – drawing on the Stoics she suggests that we might imagine ourselves to be in the middle of concentric circles. In the inner circle are our friends and family. We might gradually draw in those who are originally far away from us, by, for example, calling a stranger ‘sister’ or ‘cousin’. We cannot, of course, encompass everyone in the world, but we might at least include a few more in our circles than many of us do at the moment. Indeed, arguably this is particularly important in our world where some choose to move far away from friends and family and others are uprooted. Creating communities of people for whom we care and who care for us, can be important in this context.
3:AM: Some might find it strange that you pay a deal of attention to his aesthetic writings such as ‘The Tragic in Ancient Drama reflected in the Tragic in Modern Drama’ when discussing his political views. Why is this?
AA: First of all I would like to point out that I read Kierkegaard not only in terms of a naturalist process philosophy (informed by his links to Schelling), but in terms of a specific version of this that draws on feminist philosophy (particularly Irigaray). Naturalism, of course is a much used and much maligned term. I do not mean either a reductive or a mechanistic form of materialism. Drawing on Wilfrid Sellars’ work, I think one can separate logical entailment from causal connection. So I think that consciousness, moral claims, religious claims are not logically reducible to natural processes but they may be causally explained in terms of those processes and they may causally arise from a living nature.
The feminist insights concern in particular the ontological and metaphysical significance of birth. The originally ungrounded ground of being – what Schelling calls the ‘ungrund’, and Kierkegaard the ‘afgrund’ – and the possibility of freedom are connected with the powers and capacities for birth. I want to re-think western metaphysics. These notions foreground the political, I think, but they are also discussed in Kierkegaard’s early writings.
3:AM: You also use the religious writings of the pseudonymous texts as a way in to a different type of politics – again, some might think it strange that religious thinking should be a core to rethinking modern politics. Why don’t you think it is when it comes to Kierkegaard?
AA: Whilst, of course, the view Kierkegaard really extols is that which follows the ‘inspired leap of religiousness’ yet the Age of Revolution ‘takes action’ with passion. So there is an opening in the revolutionary age, for selves to become genuine selves and for them to act as moral agents.
There is an implicit critique in TA of a ‘spatialised’ way of seeing time. Typically we see time, and many philosophers, from Zeno onwards, have seen it this way – as a series of ‘nows’ – as a series of spatialised moments. Haufniensis (the pseudonymous author of the Concept of Anxiety) points out, by contrast, how no moment is ever really present, because every moment is a process, (a passing by) no moment is a present, and there is in time neither present nor past nor future. Haufniensis is here critiquing an ontology that spatialises time and sees reality as being comprised of substances with properties, observed by a seeing eye. Haufniensis, by contrast, emphasizes an ontology of process, where each spatialised moment contains elements of past and future. In this respect, one important influence is Schelling.
This ontology, which is implicit in TA, is outlined in others of the early pseudonymous works. For ‘A’ , in Either-Or, vision where what is hidden from view offers a more accurate depiction of reality than what is presented fully to the seeing eye. To quote from ‘A’: ‘it is this reflective sorrow that I aim to single out, and, as far as possible, have emerge in a few pictures’ (E/O: 172). Marie loves passionately and yet she knows that her love involves a deception. Marie’s love for Clavico is a perception that thought cannot think.
These are some of the ways in which the early works are relevant to the political.
3:AM: And finally, are there five books (other than your own) which you’d recommend to the readers here at 3:AM to help them delve further into your philosophical world?
AA: Five books:
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, October 4th, 2013.