Politics with Beauvoir: Freedom in the Encounter

Politics with Beauvoir: Freedom in the Encounter

by Lori Jo Marso

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In Politics with Beauvoir Lori Jo Marso treats Simone de Beauvoir's feminist theory and practice as part of her political theory, arguing that freedom is Beauvoir's central concern and that this is best apprehended through Marso's notion of the encounter. Starting with Beauvoir's political encounters with several of her key contemporaries including Hannah Arendt, Robert Brasillach, Richard Wright, Frantz Fanon, and Violette Leduc, Marso also moves beyond historical context to stage encounters between Beauvoir and others such as Chantal Akerman, Lars von Trier, Rahel Varnhagen, Alison Bechdel, the Marquis de Sade, and Margarethe von Trotta. From intimate to historical, always affective though often fraught and divisive, Beauvoir's encounters, Marso shows, exemplify freedom as a shared, relational, collective practice. Politics with Beauvoir gives us a new Beauvoir and a new way of thinking about politics—as embodied and coalitional.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822372844
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 07/21/2017
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 272
File size: 23 MB
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About the Author

Lori Jo Marso is Doris Zemurray Stone Professor of Modern Literary and Historical Studies and Professor of Political Science at Union College, and the author and editor of several books, including W Stands for Women: How the George W. Bush Presidency Shaped a New Politics of Gender, also published by Duke University Press, and Feminist Thinkers and the Demands of Femininity: The Lives and Work of Intellectual Women.

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The Second Sex introduces and exemplifies the freedom-enhancing politics of encounter that I foreground throughout this book. Here, in her most famous text, Beauvoir stages a confrontation with enemies of women (authors of male myths about femininity) and makes them speak to each other as well. She seeks out allies (diverse women, real and fictional, who recount their lived experiences). And she nurtures friends by calling out to readers of the book. At the same time she models a conversational literary practice that draws our attention to the movements and feelings of bodies (somatic and affective), the conditions of ontology (time, nature, mortality, nonsovereignty, contingency), and the existence of structures (history, language, material conditions). Just as Beauvoir argues we are never free alone but only in the presence of others, so too she saw that political thinking is generated and enhanced by thinking with and against others in conditions we cannot control (even when we create them as authors, filmmakers, or political actors).

Beauvoir's literary strategy of staging encounters within texts, and between texts and readers, shows us how feelings emerge within material conditions (via bodies encountering other bodies and things in situations) and move in and through ideologies, myths, and systems to produce, reproduce, or challenge inequality and oppression. Affect theorists often distinguish between the terms emotion, feeling, and affect, but following Beauvoir, I see feelingsand emotions as themselves political (never solely individual), as arising from material conditions and able to be mobilized into affective political configurations. Affects tend to tether us to the status quo, but might be redirected to better ends. We might say she woos her readers to help us see the mobilization of affect as a site of power and a potential source for resistance. Appealing to her readers not by the usual method of affirming identity but instead by soliciting desires for new forms of freedom, Beauvoir draws us into new affective configurations and opens up new sites of solidarity.

To illustrate how this works in The Second Sex, I begin with a reading of Beauvoir's "Right-Wing Thought Today," a text that employs similar literary techniques. This essay is dismissively introduced by Sonia Kruks (2012a, 110) in Simone de Beauvoir: Political Writings as "now perhaps mainly of historical interest." But I see much more here. Like The Second Sex, "Right-Wing Thought Today" is concerned with how myths and ideologies mobilize feelings to shape and reproduce conditions of inequality and oppression as they leave their mark on bodies, psyches, and desires. As we will see, Beauvoir disputes the idea that emotions spring solely from individual bodies via biological neuropathways or as personal feelings unique to the individual. Her reading of encounters between bodies in situation turns our attention instead to how the feelings we experience are linked to somatic, psychic, physical, and structural conditions. We experience individual emotions as individual and we can sometimes notice them on our individual bodies (blushing, for example, can be both a feeling and a bodily reaction). But feelings that might seem singular or idiosyncratic link us together and situate us in relationship to each other in classes, races, genders, castes, and other hierarchies within political bodies. Emotions flow through us collectively as well as individually. They support but also might potentially undermine systems, structures, and ideologies. In "Right-Wing Thought Today," as I will show, Beauvoir helps us see how affects are mobilized within pernicious political projects; in this case they assist the bourgeoisie in their bid to convince us that it is not only undesirable but likely impossible to challenge the dominance of capitalism. Beauvoir hopes that by staging new encounters between thinkers in her text and between her readers and her texts, she can differently mobilize affects to nurture our desire for freedom and help us find allies and friends to collectively enact this possibility.

"Right-Wing Thought Today" was published in Les Temps Modernes in 1955, just a few short years following the appearance of The Second Sex in 1949. I switch their historical order to situate my reading of "Right-Wing Thought Today" before my reading of The Second Sex so that we are better able to appreciate some of Beauvoir's literary strategies in The Second Sex as explicitly political strategies by identifying and naming them first in "Right-Wing Thought Today." The Second Sex is, in too many ways, a book we think we already know. Part of that misguided sense of already knowing this book is our inability to recognize it as helping us think politically by engaging with gender questions that are themselves inextricably connected to the ways we think politically. As I claimed in the introduction, Beauvoir is always already "our Beauvoir," a Beauvoir we have identified as taking up a particular place in our narrative of feminism, whatever that narrative may be: how feminism has moved from being centered on white women to (reluctantly) including women of color, how feminist daughters have "abandoned" or "forgotten" feminist mothers, how feminism is narrow and stifling, how gender questions are a subset of political questions rather than themselves shaping the ways we think politically. I want to unsettle these contradictory, but seemingly settled invocations of what The Second Sex means for feminism and means for politics. Part of that effort is to show how Beauvoir is a far more complex and nuanced thinker about political processes than we have previously recognized her as being. She begins to think this way when she discovers that the way we create and reproduce the political meanings of sexual difference is a result of particular configurations of feelings in response to complex ontological processes wrongly said to legitimate structures and systems of inequality and oppression.


In The Mandarins, Beauvoir ([1954] 1999) fictionalizes the dilemmas of the French Left following World War II and the end of Occupation. This was rich material for a fictional account: not only were there several affairs and political and personal breaks with allies and friends, but there were also real enemies to confront in spite of the fact that the Nazis had been defeated. The cold war was beginning, the Algerian War was heating up, reports of the Soviet Union's gulags and forced loyalty to the Communist Party structure were emerging, and the French were defeated in Vietnam in 1954. Beauvoir and Sartre were fellow travelers with the Communist Party, but even before the Hungarian invasion in 1956, they were seeking an alternative to Soviet-style communism. They and their cohort were trying to find a third option, a political path toward democratic socialism. "Right-Wing Thought Today" was part of this effort, appearing in a special issue of Les Temps Modernes devoted to the question "Do the notions of 'Left' and 'Right' still have meaning?" Beauvoir's essay responds with a diagnosis and evaluation of what unifies and typifies "right-wing thinkers."

My reading of "Right-Wing Thought Today" brings our attention to the way Beauvoir stages encounters with and between her enemies to reveal and also to mobilize configurations of feeling. Her wager is that these conversations might awaken readers to the ideological commitments and material interests that belie any claim to the linguistic, aesthetic, or literary autonomy of writers and motivate us to answer her appeal to political engagement. Beauvoir's immediate goal is to articulate what makes "rightwing thought" cohesive and on the Right. Including a wide range of rightwing thinkers in her essay, Beauvoir gives them space to voice their beliefs, and just as she does in The Second Sex, she insists that they speak to each other. In these ways, she is able to make comparisons between kinds and degrees of right-wing ideologies. She even includes some proponents of liberal thought in the category "right-wing" because they buttress the power and self-interest of the bourgeois classes and deny that communism could be a politically and ethically viable alternative. To undermine the claim that right-wing ideas have a legitimacy based in anything beyond self-interest, she shows that their ideas are motivated by fear, worry, and anger and that these emotions emerge from concrete historical material conditions. The Right may not hold power forever and so they should be fearful, she tells us; they should be anxious and may feel angry about challenges to their dominance. Beauvoir diagnoses these feelings and their emergence from material conditions, but she does not justify them. Listening to right-wing thinkers talk to each other, readers suddenly see that right-wing ideologies are chimeras. Their ideas are not universal, their "taste" does not equal elegance. And yet these ideas undergird and create right-wing realities (in this case, capitalism, but also fascism) that have devastating material effects for the majority. Readers may come to see that marketing self-interest as universalism, colonial dominance as the spreading of civilization, and racial superiority as equality are strategies that will not last forever if we can join with allies and friends in opposition.

Beauvoir names several targets in her essay but her main interlocutors are Thierry Maulnier, a fascist journalist; Jules Mormerot, a sociologist and de Gaulle supporter; Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, a Nazi collaborator; Henry de Montherlant, a militarist writer, whom she also attacks for his misogyny in The Second Sex; and Raymond Aron, a liberal sociologist. This is a diverse group, to which she quite controversially adds the phenomenologists Karl Jaspers and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Merleau-Ponty was a friend of Beauvoir's from her youth, and there are several significant resonances between his work and hers, particularly their interest in theorizing the significance of the lived experience of bodies. So it is surprising for her to criticize him, but the explanation may be that he had just published a searing critique of Sartre's pro-communist politics. With Jaspers and Merleau-Ponty included, Beauvoir's essay was a sweeping condemnation of not only rightwing but also liberal thought.

This was intentional on Beauvoir's part. Lumping right-wing and liberal thinkers together brings different, or as she calls them, "pluralist" positions into the same space to show affective and strategic affinities among them. She does this in volume 1 of The Second Sex too. Here she lumps all sorts of diverse masculinist thinkers together to show that they often think alike when they are discussing the myth of Woman. Moreover, the myth of Woman is itself rooted in several, often contradictory sources and rumors that are surprisingly plural and wildly contradictory but that all work in their different ways to buttress patriarchy: women are virgins and whores, frigid and too sexual, ideally suited to housework and raising families and yet bad housekeepers and mothers. Fixing multiple and polymorphous women as Woman by denying the variety of their material and somatic experiences is, she says, an attempt to trap women in an all too elastic and yet mythic ideal of femininity. Perpetuating the contradictory and freedom-denying myth of Woman denies what Beauvoir calls the "data" of biology, wherein sexual difference is fluid and contingent. Likewise writing history, psychoanalysis, and theology in ideological and systematic fashion in regard to the question of women ignores and disavows women's bodily experiences, their structural and political material realities, and the emotions, struggles, and actions of their everyday lives.

Just as The Second Sex shows that when talking about women men are motivated by their emotions (mostly fear and anxiety), in "Right-Wing Thought Today" Beauvoir says that fear, panic, and worry motivates and situates the thought of right-wing intellectuals: "We know that today's bourgeois is frightened" ([1955] 2012, 113). Because they are frightened (they had erroneously "believed in the harmonious development of capitalism, continual progress, and in [their and capitalism's] own eternity," 114), they engage in forms of "counter-thought" to discount communism as a viable alternative. Having no real core in a positive vision, some right-wing thinkers advance their claims as realist, others as idealist, and still others argue for a form of quietism by, for example, making fatalist claims about the cosmos, fate, and the coming apocalypse. All these positions serve to discourage political engagement by making it seem as if change is not possible or that attempts to challenge privilege are futile or meaningless.

Throughout this essay Beauvoir connects political assemblages of affects as well as individual emotions to material and social reality, always reading bodies in encounter. She worries that the sources of affects are too often wrongly diagnosed as psychological or physiological, a move that reduces the complex production and the political effects of emotions to the quirks of subjectivity or organic forces ([1955] 2012, 130–31). Beauvoir not only says the right wing's precarious grasp on the future motivates their fear, she also links the frustrations and emotions of the disenfranchised with their material reality too. She confirms what rightwing thinkers say about the Left: that left-wing intellectuals (and workers too) are driven by "ethical or affective" motivations, for instance, frustration that manifests as a "revolutionary attitude" (123) or as resentment. But rather than see this as a problem, she says frustration, anxiety, and the sense of injustice arises within the lived conditions of people's material lives. These are not individual pathologies. Workers have every right to be frustrated by their material conditions and the stubborn rigidity of their repetitive daily lives, Beauvoir insists. She furthermore claims that right-wing thinkers should indeed be fearful: capitalism is not the only way to organize an economy, and it does not have to, and may not, continue forever.

Material links to feelings, and the mobilization of these feelings, however, do not just move in one direction. Feelings move within and through bodies, arising from bodies in encounter and in turn reshaping those bodies and situations in less than predictable ways. Beauvoir brings the words of rightwing ideologues to the attention of her readers to help us see that their promises and predictions nurture quietism or encourage reactionary action but always with the intention to buttress capitalist self-interest and maintain and deepen inequality. The right wing proclaims the empty promise of individual freedom, the "mission" of the elite, the "ethics" of heroes, and the "beauty" of the aesthetic. "The existence of privilege becomes sacred, its possession a right, and its exercise a duty. The privileged are called the Elite, their privileges are called superiorities, and together they are called Civilization" ([1955] 2012, 134). She uses an example from the U.S. context to make this point: "In America this is the way that Big Business operates cynically. It uses Public Relations to spread among the exploited masses the slogans profitable to the exploiters. It has perfected the art of Human Engineering that is devoted to concealing the material reality of the workers' conditions through moral and affective mystification" (126).

As Beauvoir also shows, once politically launched, certain configurations of feeling take on a life of their own. Much like Marx's commodities, they appear to become untethered from material conditions and move in often unexpected ways. Seeking to understand the contemporary landscape of U.S. politics wherein the most destitute populations are willing supporters of the politicians and ideologues who created, and whose policies reproduce, the harmful conditions of their lives, Arlie Russell Hochschild echoes Beauvoir's lament that we have failed to acknowledge not only how emotions work in politics, but specifically how emotions that arise in diminished material circumstances can be manipulated and moved in multiple ways. Reviewing Hochschild's book, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, Nathanial Rich says this:

The deep story that Hochschild creates for the Tea Party is a parable of the white American Dream. It begins with an image of a long line of people marching across a vast landscape. The Tea Partiers — white, older, Christian, predominantly male, many lacking college degrees — are somewhere in the middle of the line. They trudge wearily, but with resolve, up a hill. Ahead, beyond the ridge, lies wealth, success, dignity. Far behind them the line is composed of people of color, women, immigrants, refugees. As pensions are reduced and layoffs absorbed, the line slows, then stalls.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments  vii
Introduction: Our Beauvoir  1
1. (Re)Encountering The Second Sex  17
Part I. Enemies: Monsters, Men, and Misogynist Art
2. "An Eye for an Eye" with Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem  41
3. The Marquis de Sade's Bodies in Lars von Trier's Antichrist  67
Part II. Allies: Antinomies of Action in Conditions of Violence
4. Violence, Pathologies, and Resistance in Frantz Fanon  97
5. In Solidarity with Richard Wright  122
Part III. Friends: Conversations that Change the Rules
6. Perverse Protests from Chantal Akerman to Lars von Trier  153
7. Unbecoming Women with Violette Leduc, Rahel Varnhagen, and Margarethe von Trotta  176
Conclusion: A Happy Ending  203
Notes  209
References  235
Index  247

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