Monday, April 14, 2014

Fortune Is a Woman, a lesson in how to do critical theory

Have I mentioned my fondness for Italian political theorists and philosophers recently? Oh, right.

Critical analyses of political theory don’t get much better than Hanna Fenichel Pitkin’s 1984 (1984! How had I been unaware of it for three decades?) Fortune Is a Woman: Gender and Politics in the Thought of Niccolò Machiavelli.

(This edition has an added afterword; mine is an earlier edition without it, which is unfortunate.)

Maybe the most impressive aspect is Pitkin’s approach to critical theory itself, the attitude she takes to Machiavelli and his thought. Underlying the book is a basic respect for Machiavelli and his circumstances and a sympathetic engagement with his politics that actively seeks to do justice to his democratic and humanist ideas and to distinguish them from what she acknowledges to be proto-fascist tendencies.* In this, Pitkin isn’t looking to distill the “real” or “true” democratic Machiavelli and discard what doesn’t fit with that conception, but to describe “Machiavelli at his best” – a phrase she uses more than once – and to understand the ideological distortions that undermined his democratic potential, producing Machiavelli at his worst.

As Pitkin notes, Machiavelli can, for many reasons, be a difficult theorist to like. A critical feminist analysis of his work focusing almost exclusively on its underlying misogyny and related failings would be worthwhile, but incomplete. This is where so much critical theory of the past several decades falls short. Understanding the ideologies of oppression that have undermined democratic-humanist theory or pushed it in the wrong direction, especially when the problems are fundamental, is absolutely necessary. And I’m not suggesting that critical theorists generally are merely interested in criticizing and have little positive or useful to offer themselves (although this is true in some cases). But when doing critical analysis, it seems to me, people are often so determined to overturn and move beyond the oppressive ideas that they come to see thinkers or even entire political philosophies as fundamentally corrupted, such that nothing worthwhile can be salvaged from them. This is in an important sense a failure of democratic and scholarly ideals, and can result in the loss of important insights and the impoverishment of contemporary theory.

Avoiding this pitfall, Pitkin is able to produce both a thoughtful analysis of Machiavelli’s democratic insights and an equally thoughtful analysis of how his (and his patriarchal culture’s) extreme misogyny not only undermined any democratic impulses but pushed Machiavelli in proto-fascist directions. I think this engaged and holistic approach can be extended to the critical analysis of Pitkin’s own work. Again, she recognizes the problems with Machiavelli’s political theory as fundamental – it isn’t a relatively simple matter of drawing out his democratic-humanist political ideas and broadening their scope by extending them to women. At the same time, though, she reproduces some of the same problems by failing to question his ideas about nonhuman animals. Generally, Pitkin’s speciesism is relatively mild, certainly lacking the nastiness of Machiavelli’s claims about women. But she does repeatedly recreate with regard to other animals the othering she objects to when it’s directed at women.** This makes her unable to expand her discussion of the benefits of mutuality within difference and plurality beyond humans, limiting its applicability and usefulness in a world characterized by the mass oppression of animals and the destruction of our environment and even weakening aspects of her feminist critique (the last two pages fall especially flat, but they’re two of 327).

That’s a major issue. A lesser issue is the inclusion of a bit too much Freudianism (which fortunately is largely confined to one chapter, even if it is pretty interesting), but I guess that’s to be expected. I don’t believe this sort of depth psychological analysis is necessary to understand the ideas themselves or even the vehemence, tenacity, and defensiveness with which they were or are held. Systems of oppression and the need for ideologies to sustain and justify them are, I think, sufficient. But then I’m a sociologist. These criticisms aside, the book isn’t just a fascinating study of Machiavelli’s ideas but has much to say that’s relevant to contemporary politics, and I recommend it highly.

* Of course, this is only true insofar as democratic and humanistic aspects are present. More purely critical approaches are suited to theorists and philosophers with almost exclusively authoritarian ideas based on false premises about the human condition and “human nature.” Pitkin’s approach is more suited to, say, Sartre or Arendt than to Heidegger or Schmitt.

** To provide one example, Pitkin correctly and usefully describes how the othering of women interferes with and diminishes men’s identity formation and relationships with themselves. They attribute negative or inherently subordinate qualities to women, and are then driven to deny these qualities in themselves and to hate themselves to the extent that they believe they share them. Throughout the book, though, she unquestioningly attributes such qualities – often the same ones typically attributed to women – to animals, and is then led to define humanity in oppositional terms. Again, this isn’t expressed in the vicious, hateful way Machiavelli wrote about women or that many democratic-humanistic thinkers have written about nonhuman animals, but it’s there all the same, and distorts her understanding of the human condition and of the possibilities for democratic politics.

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