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THURSDAY,

JUNE

12,

2008

BEAUTY CLUBS by Camelia Elias

Today a female student from abroad walked into my office and told me in all genuine ingenuity: "you're so beautiful, and it's not because of your habitual zest for life". Then she insisted on guessing: "you're either pregnant or something wonderful is happening." I knew she wasn't flattering me, which flattered me. So I said: "to your first guess, my answer is: not in this life time". To your second, if something wonderful is happening, it must be the realization that all good art is indeed the result of struggle." I'm struggling with some thoughts about the human condition in the face of having answered the uninteresting question: what's the meaning of life - that one we've already figured out the minute we realized what a stupid question it is." "Oh," she said, "you know, you're the best philosopher around here." This thought horrified me. Before I got to say anything, she was interested in knowing why I don't want children. To my reply that it's because I love silence, she nodded and said: "yes, children don't make much music" - she's a musician. "Besides," she said, "it's not befitting for a woman to have children in a male dominated society." We looked at each other and discovered that both our gazes articulated the same thing: is there more for us, in this society of mechanical reproduction of myth and ideology? When women desire, it is deemed nonsensical, when men desire it is deemed commonsensical. The agents here are men. This reminded me of my predicament a few days ago. I attended a conference on Artificial Environments and I was the only woman there who had questions for all the speakers (who were all male). In fact I was the only one who had questions for all presenters (here is the statistics of the participant numbers: 22 philosophers, I, an Americanist who does philosophy for the heck of it, and another graduate female student who studies industrial design; the gender ratio was thus 2 to 22).

After my first question, which went to one of the leading European philosophers of science, Andrew Pickering (at such events, all men are leading by default), my fate was sealed. My question was nasty, but damn good, I thought myself, especially in light of how Pickering's argument was advanced. He was making a case for how we must begin to think in alternative terms about the practice of science. His key concepts offered as a substitute for the age-old linguistic representation of all things were performativity, dances of agency, and emergence. He was doing what I thought the best philosophers of consciousness and epistemology are doing - who all happen to be women; just think of Donna Haraway - namely, emphasize the nature of the relational aspect of knowledge construction. Knowledge in relation tends to undo the representational realm of the linguistic turn, or so the argument goes. I loved what Pickering had to say, that we should think about performativity as that which exceeds everything. Right, so when I asked him directly: "then what do you need the concept of agency for?" he should have been happy. He wasn't, however, and started referring to natural catastrophes and their agencies, and how everything has agency, and how he didn't have a problem with seeing agency everywhere. Of course what he was saying was non-sense. A natural catastrophe doesn't have agency precisely because it's natural. I implied this much upon being asked to explain why in the face of performativity I really don't see how we can buy the whole agency thing. I gave an example from computer game theorists. One of them said: "every time I play a game, Aristotle gets smarter." My proposition was that if we insist on holding on to the concept of agency especially as it gets to be bypassed by performativity, then, at best, we should think of it in terms of postponement. Agency works best when the one exercising it displays some degree of meta-consciousness. In this sense agency is never either active or direct but relegated to an upper level that doesn't involve thinking about one to one or binary relations. I could tell that while Pickering didn't get it, he was allured by the thought. I'm sure he went home and thought about it some more - for, he didn't want to talk to me thereafter. (I should mention that some of the others present did get it and approved of the idea, which was more amply elaborated on than I care to reproduce here). Which brings me to closing this thought. Neither of the men present at the conference asked me anything at all about my own research: what I was working on, why I was interested in technology, science, architecture, religion, design, philosophy at large, and so on. Some of them thought I was an eager student who posed complicated questions to show how smart she was. So I didn't count (on that account it suited me fine to have lunch with 5 philosophy students who showed up on the second day, and who were sitting at a table that was not sought after by the leading men). So yes, it seems that knowledge is relational indeed, but it only goes one way in the philosophy club: while I've learned a lot - I asked all sorts of questions both on and off the record - in relation to my own knowledge, most of the men present were exercising their agency in terms of certainty: you don't converse with women about philosophy and research. Period. So the club was not open to membership of the dubious kind (as the general tradition goes: as a woman, you can't do philosophy, as an Americanist, you can't be serious about philosophy, hence, at its best, when it is however well-intended, the question is this one: "we would like you here, but what are we going to do with you?" - (of course it never occurs to most men to ask a woman whether she finds them interesting in the slightest, which would save them the embarrassing question. For as it happens, a clever woman would never dream of waiting for men to "deal" with her.) Luckily, I was compensated plenty for my being coerced into the feeling of not-belonging. In the student club I was thoroughly amused by their telling me how they were critical in their group assignment of one of the books written by one of the speakers; how they were using a perspective from Deleuze, whom their supervisor hates, and how they thought it was creatively productive to be serious in philosophy about mad ideas. Right on. Now to some facts: at the end of the day I was also certain about two things: 1) on the question of the moral agency of artifacts in relation to performativity and networks of emergence: neither of the philosophers that engaged with the artificial in an environment (which means almost all of them) has read Wittgenstein properly. 2) on the question of agency: when women call the agency bluff, men go silent - or deaf. I'm now thinking:

if men were children, I would love their silence. As things are, however, I find their silence not only annoying but also downright devoid of good manners. Ah, clubs! Marx was right. The other Marx, that is. Back to my office. I told my student today, after two hours of philosophizing the right way, that some children should be glad I'm not their mother. Imagine all the spanking! Not all knowledge emerges from practical talk. Some emerges from theoretical silence, but the best emerges from performative performance.