Monday, March 14, 2011

my marxist feminist dialectic brings sartre to the yard

This week for my political philosophy class I read, for the first time in full, the Communist Manifesto. And, don't tell Joseph McCarthy (or the Tea Party or my politicalphilosophy professor) but I actually kind of liked it. Or liked parts of it. What's most intriguing to me about the Manifesto is that it presented a different way of reading history.

I had a conversation with a friend who studies history this weekend about different approaches to historical criticism. First, there's what we all learn in high school and introductory college classes. This is the history of The Great Men Who Made a Difference, the teleological history we trace from Antiquity to Rome to the Christian Empire to the Renaissance and the Reformation to the Enlightenment to Romanticism to Industrialization. This is the story of Plato and Aristotle, of Nero and Caesar, of Augustine, of Christopher Columbus and Gutenberg, of Luther and Calvin, of Vol
taire, of Newton, of Rousseau. This is The Man's history, who tends to be rich and white.

There's also what is called microhistory. This is historical study that concentrates its efforts on a single person, a single event, a single place, and tries to draw out larger conclusions. As Charles Joyner explains, microhistory is the "search for answers to large questions in small places." This is the approach I have been (unwittingly) taking to Loïe Fuller in my thesis research - I use one specific dancer at one specific time in her career as a lens for considering women and society during the Belle Époque. This is, for sake of comparison, some wo/man's history.

With the Communist Manifesto came another approach to historical study, one that scrutinizes interactions between large groups of people. This claims to be the everyman's history.

Marxist history has the advantage of trying to look at all - or many - groups in a society, where our traditional "high school" model looks at The Privileged Few and tends to disregard the history of the quotidian many. Not that I am very familiar with historical analysis, but the problem that would seem to present itself in marxist history is that it aims to draw too specific of conclusions from too large of a field of study - the very opposite of what microhistory proposes.

But enough on historical analysis.
By some happy accident, this week I'm reading some Jean-Paul Sartre (above, left) for my political philosophy class and some Simone de Beauvoir (above, right) for my class on women in French art and culture [Note: yes, those links are both to the Marxist Internet Archives. Funny].

De Beauvoir's The Second Sex is great. If I had brought more than one bra along on this trip, I would already be stoking a fire in the alley behind my apartment. Among the gems I've come across are the following:

"Le problème quand elle souhaite une histoire, une aventure, où elle puisse engager son coeur avec son corps, c'est de rencontrer un homme qu'elle puisse considérer comme un égal sans qu'il se regarde comme supérieur."
"The problem is, when she [the liberated woman] desires a romantic intrigue or adventure to which she can commit her heart and her body, finding a man she can consider her equal and who does not consider himself superior."

"Une femme qui n'a pas peur des hommes leur fait peur."
"A woman who is not afraid of men, frightens men."

Reading her along with Sartre and Marx is really enlightening, but I have to say I'm glad to be reading all this (1) two decades after the Berlin Wall and the USSR and (2) off of American soil. The Second Red Scare may have died with McCarthy in 1957, but thinking that far to the left is still considered bad form where I'm from.

From Sartre I read his in/famous lecture, "Existentialism is a Humanism," which again I enjoyed - at least parts. His emphasis on action really speaks to me, especially when it comes to the example of love, which he uses several times. "But in reality and for the existentialist, there is no love apart from the deeds of love; no potentiality of love other than that which is manifested in loving." Does this sound like a line from that familiar song to anyone else? "...In the end the love you take is equal to the love you make." Or that one time when, at church nonetheless, I made that great speecho: "On apprend l'amour en le faisant [Love is learned in the making of it]." For the record, I was trying to explain that we create love in cultivating it, or that we learn to love truth in living it, or something. Actions though. That's what's important.

It's about actions, not ephemeral feelings or unfulfilled wishes. Concrete deeds. Totally with you on that one, Sartre.

I'm gearing up to hear Sartre and Marx ripped to pieces tomorrow by my more conservative political philosophy professor, so I thought I'd just put out some good vibes in the universe for these guys. I guess my final attitude is this:

There's certainly something to be learned from these "enemies of liberalism" (as tomorrow's class lecture is entitled) so while we explore the shortcomings of their philosophies, can't we have a moment to consider potentially positive contributions? Seek to understand, not first to disprove, right?


  1. I feel so not well read at the moment, but I thoroughly enjoyed this. Thanks.

  2. Two things that had me on the floor laughing: "On apprend l'amour en le faisant." and "My Marxist Feminist Dialect Brings All the Boys to the Yard."
    To the first: YES! To the second: I still don't understand the connection between Marxism and feminism. I thought Marxism was ultra anti-feminism. Could you enlighten me?

  3. Oh Grace, I love to hear your thoughts, and I'm glad I found your new blog. The love is doing thing hit home for me...excellent proposition. Love, like bread, should be made every day.