Sara Ahmed on patriarchy in theory

Who is the subject of critical theory in 2020? And how does this subject grapple with the legacy of patriarchy, whiteness, and coloniality that have haunted critical theory since 1968 and earlier? Too much of a question for a blog post. But I would venture briefly that one way to rethink the legacy of critical theory is to see how others have already escaped it.

I want here to explore feminist theorist Sara Ahmed’s professional encounter with critical theory in Britain. I draw here on her published reflections on her education, set largely in the late 1980s and early 1990s. For Ahmed, theory’s reified masculinism was a point of departure in her process of coming to consciousness as a feminist. Ahmed, who resigned her professorial position at Goldsmiths to protest widespread sexual harassment, initially encountered “theory” as an undergraduate in the literature department at the University of Adelaide. When she moved to Cardiff University’s then-new Centre for Critical and Cultural Theory for her doctoral work, she learned a major lesson: that theory in the abstract was predominantly theory in the masculine.

What I glean from Ahmed’s writing is that her coming-to-consciousness-against-theory took place in four key moments.

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Plato and the birth of ambivalence

I’ve been teaching a class on anthropology of education this fall, and we spent the first several weeks of class reading various moments in educational theory and philosophy (Rousseau, Wollstonecraft, Dewey, Nyerere, Freire). The first week, we read Book 2 of Plato’s Republic, which (famously) explains how the need for an educated “guardian class” emerges from the ideal division of labor in a city. Our class discussion focused mostly on Plato’s remarkably static and immobile division of labor, a point which rightfully seems to get a lot of attention from modern commentators on the Republic. (Dewey put it pretty succinctly: Plato “had no perception of the uniqueness of individuals.”)

But I was more intrigued by Plato’s remarkable, zany account of the origins of ambivalence, which I don’t think has gotten so much recognition. We have to be a bit anachronistic to read “ambivalence” into this text, to be sure, since the term in its modern psychological sense was coined by Eugen Bleuler in 1911. Nevertheless, I want to explore here how Plato comes up with something that really seems like a concept of ambivalence avant la lettre. It emerges in the text from his long meditation on the nature of a guardian, which is premised on the initial assumption that the guardian’s nature (or anyone’s nature) has to be singular and coherent.

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