‘Ethics of Ambiguity’ Reading Group

This is a reading group for all those who wish to come together to discuss Simone de Beauvoir’s “Ethics of Ambiguity” (1947).

The group runs in (Northern hemisphere) winter 2022-3, mostly coinciding with the winter break, and is designed to give space for open reflection and discussion of ideas concerning ethics, responsibility, and ambiguity in relation to contemporary circumstances.

The group is open to all. Philosophical training or detailed background knowledge are not required. For specs, see FAQ (1) below.

The group runs in weekly sessions on Zoom, Fridays 1-2PM (BST, London time), starting from 16 December until 27 January inclusive of Xmas/New Year’s break. This time is chosen both for accessibility purposes and, in some cases, to accommodate the academic term. If the timing does not suit you, please see FAQ (2) below.

For instructions on how and when to join, as well as how to participate, see FAQs (3) and (4). For schedule, see bottom of page.

FAQs (or, please read this before joining):

(1) Who can participate?

The group is open to all. You do not need to have a philosophical background, detailed knowledge of existentialist (or any) philosophy, or an interest in Simone de Beauvoir to participate. The group welcomes all people regardless of gender, ethnicity, ability, or any other aspect of identity; that said, the conversation is designed to be respectful and equal, so bullying, racism and transphobia will not be tolerated.

There is no formal leadership and no assumption of authority in the group. The emphasis in the discussion is on personal impressions, thoughts, and questions that the text raises for you. That said, be mindful of the background of participants when contributing; do not use references (as in, ‘in her other work, de Beauvoir…’) or name-drops (as in, ‘as Foucault said..’) without explaining what you mean in a language accessible to everyone (or, best, skip name-dropping altogether).

(2) What if the timing does not suit me?

The group is run on an entirely informal and voluntary basis. You are free to join any of the sessions at any time between 1 and 2 PM, without expectation of continuation or repeat participation. If the timing does not suit you, you are welcome to start another reading or discussion group at a timing that suits you better.

(3) How can I join?

Below is the schedule, Zoom link, and details for each session.

16 December, 1-2PM (BST)

Chapter 1: Ambiguity and Freedom (pages 5-35 in 2015 English edition by Open Road Integrated Media)

Join


23 December, 1-2PM (BST)

Chapter 2: Personal Freedom and Others (pp. 37-78, as above)

Join

[Winter break]

6 January, 1-2PM (BST)

Chapter 3: The Positive Aspect of Ambiguity, Sections I (The Aesthetic Attitude) and II (Freedom and Liberation), pp. 79-103

Join

13 January, 1-2PM (BST)

Chapter 3: The Positive Aspect of Ambiguity, Sections III and IV (The Antinomies of Action & The Present and the Future), pp. 103-139

Join

20 January, 1-2PM (BST)

Chapter 3, Section V: Ambiguity (pp. 139-168).

Join

27 January, 1-2PM (BST)

Conclusions (pp. 169-174) and wrap-up/further plans

Join

(4) How do I participate?

Be mindful of other participants. Try not to take more than 2-3 minutes when speaking, and give priority to those who have not already spoken in the meeting. While there will be no chairing or official moderation (unless absolutely necessary), raising your hand (Zoom lower bar in window –> Reactions –> ‘Raise hand’) function will signal to other speakers you want to speak and indicate your turn in the conversation.

Your microphone will be muted by default when joining. Please make sure you keep your mic on mute except when speaking, especially if in a noisy environment. Participants are normally expected to turn cameras on as this contributes to participation and communication, but we understand there are safety- and ability-related reasons not to do so.

De Beauvoir’s book can be found on Marxists.org (link above), in libraries, or bookshops.

Happy reading!

Sally’s boys, Daddy’s girls

I’ve finished reading Sally Rooney’s most recent novel, Beautiful World, Where are you? It turned out to be much better than I expected – as an early adopter of Conversations with Friends (‘read it – and loved it – before  it was cool’), but have subsequently found Normal People quite flat – by which I mean I spent most of the first half struggling, but found the very last bits actually quite good. In an intervening visit to The Bound, I also picked up one of Rooney’s short stories, Mr Salary, and read it on the metro back from Whitley Bay.

I became intrigued by the ‘good boy’ characters of both – Simon in Beautiful World, Nathan in Mr Salary. For context (and hopefully without too many spoilers), Simon is the childhood friend-cum-paramour of Eileen, who is the best friend of Alice (BW’s narrator, and Rooney’s likely alter-ego); Nathan, the titular character of Mr Salary, is clearly a character study for Simon, and in a similar – avuncular – relationship to the story’s narrator. Both Simon and Nathan are older than their (potential) girlfriends in sufficient amounts to make the relationship illegal or at least slightly predatory when they first meet, but also to hold it as a realistic and thus increasingly tantalizing promise once they have grown up a bit. But neither men are predatory creeps; in fact, exactly the opposite. They are kind, understanding, unfailingly supportive, and forever willing to come back to their volatile, indecisive, self-doubting, and often plainly unreliable women.

Who are these fantastic men? Here is an almost perfect reversal of the traditional romance portrayal of gender roles – instead of unreliable, egotistic, unsure-about-their-own-feelings-and-how-to-demonstrate-them guys, we are getting more-or-less the same, but with girls, with the men providing a reliable safe haven from which they can weather their emotional, professional, and sexual storms. This, of course, is not to deny that women can be as indecisive and as fickle as the stereotypical ‘Bad Boys’ of toxic romance; it’s to wonder what this kind of role reversal – even in fantasy, or the para-fantasy para-ethnography that is contemporary literature – does.

On the one hand, men like Simon and Nathan may seem like godsend to anyone who has ever gone through the cycle of emotional exhaustion connected to relationships with people who are, purely, assholes. (I’ve been exceptionally lucky in this regard, insofar as my encounters with the latter kind were blissfully few; but sufficient to be able to confirm that this kind does, indeed, exist in the wild). I mean, who would not want a man who is reliable, supportive of your professional ambitions, patient, organized, good in bed, and does laundry (yours included)? Someone who could withstand your emotional rollercoasters *and* buy you a ticket home when you needed it – and be there waiting for you? Almost like a personal assistant, just with the emotions involved.

And here, precisely, is the rub. For what these men provide is not a model of a partnership; it’s a model of a parent. The way they relate to the women characters – and, obviously, the narrative device of age difference amplifies this – is less that of a partner and  more of a benevolent older brother or, in a (n only slight) paraphrase of Winnicott, a good-enough father.

In Daddy Issues, Katherine Angel argues that feminism never engaged fully with the figure of the father – other than as the absent, distant or mildly (or not so mildly) violent and abusive figure. But somewhere outside the axis between Sylvia Plath’s Daddy and Valerie Solanas’ SCUM manifesto is the need to define exactly what the role of the father is once it is removed from its dual shell of object of hate/object of love. Is there, in fact, a role at all?

I have been thinking about this a lot, not only in relation to the intellectual (and political) problem of relationality in theory/knowledge production practices  – what Sara Ahmed so poignantly summarized as ‘can one not be in relation to white men?’ – but also personally. Having grown up effectively without a father (who was also unknown to me in my early childhood), what, exactly, was the Freudian triangle going to be in my case? (no this does not mean I believe the Electra complex applies literally; if you’re looking to mansplain psychoanalytic theory, I’d strongly urge you to reconsider, given I’ve read Freud at the age of 13 and have read post-Freudians since; I’d also urge you to read the following paragraph and consider how it relates to the legacies of Anna Freud/Melanie Klein divide, something Adam Philips writes about).

In the domain of theory, claims of originality (or originarity, as in coining or discovering something) is nearly always attributed to men, women’s contributions almost unfailingly framed in terms of ‘application or elaboration of *his* ideas’ or ‘[minor] contribution to the study’ (I’ve written about this in the cases of Sartre/de Beauvoir and Robert Merton/Harriet Zuckerman’s the ‘Matthew Effect’, but other examples abound). As Marilyn Frye points out in “Politics of reality”, the force of genealogy does not necessarily diminish even for those whose criticism of patriarchy extends to refusing anything to do with men altogether; Frye remarks having observed many a lesbian separatist still asking to be recognized – intellectually and academically – by the white men ‘forefathers’ who sit on academic panels. The shadow of the father is a long one. For those of us who have chosen to be romantically involved with men, and have chosen to work in patriarchal mysoginistic institutions that the universities surely are, not relating to men at all is not exactly an option.

It is from this perspective that I think we’d benefit from a discussion on how men can be reliable partners without turning into good-enough daddies, because – as welcome and as necessary as this role sometimes is, especially for women whose own fathers were not – it is ultimately not a relationship between two adults. I remember reading an early feminist critique of the Bridget Jones industry that really hit the nail on the head: it was not so much Jones’ dedication to all things ‘60s and ‘70s feminism abhorred – obsession with weight loss and pursuit of ill-advised men (i.e. Daniel Cleaver); it was even more that when ‘Mr Right’ (Mark Darcy, the barely disguised equivalent of Austen’s Mr Darcy) arrives, he still falls for Bridget – despite the utter absence of anything from elementary competence at her job to the capacity to feed herself in any form that departs from binge eating to recommend her to a seemingly top-notch human rights attorney. Which really begs the question: what is Mr Darcy seeing in Bridget?

Don’t get me wrong: I am sure that there are men who are attracted to the chaotic, manic-pixie-who-keeps-losing-her-credit-card kind of girl. Regardless of what manifestation or point on the irresponsibility spectrum they occupy, these women certainly play a role for such men – allowing them to feel useful, powerful, respected, even perhaps feeding a bit their saviour complex. But ultimately, playing this role leaves these men entirely outside of the relationship; if the only way they relate to their partners is by reacting (to their moods, their needs, their lives), this ultimately absolves them of equal responsibility for the relationship. Sadly, there is a way to avoid equal division of the ‘mental load’ even while doing the dishes.

And I am sure this does something for the women in question too; after all, there is nothing wrong in knowing that there *is* going to be someone to pick you up if you go out and there are no taxis to get you back home, who will always provide a listening ear and a shoulder to cry on, seemingly completely irrespectively of their own needs (Simon is supposed to have a relatively high-profile political job, yet, interestingly, never feels tired when Ellaine calls or offers to come over). But what at first seems like a fantasy come true – a reliable man who is not afraid to show his love and admiration – can quickly turn into a somewhat toxic set of interdependencies: why, for instance, learn to drive if someone is always there to pick you up and drop you off? (honestly: even among the supposedly-super-egalitarian straight partnerships I know, the number of men drivers vastly outstrips that of women). The point is not to always insist on being a jack-of-all-trades (nor on being the designated driver), as much as to realize that most kinds of freedom (for instance, the freedom to drink when out) embed a whole set of dependencies (for instance, dependence on urban networks of taxis/Ubers or kind self-effacing mensaviours there to pick you up – in Cars’ slightly creepy formulation, drive you home).

Of course, as Simone de Beauvoir recognized, there is no freedom without dependency. We cannot, simply, will ourselves free without willing the same for others; but, at the same time, we cannot will them to be free, as this turns them into objects. In Ethics of Ambiguity – one of the finest books of existentialist philosophy – de Beauvoir turns this into the main conundrum (thus: source of ambiguity) for how to act ethically. Acknowledging our fundamental reliance on others does not mean we need to remain locked into the same set of interdependencies (e.g., we could build safe and reliable public transport and then we would not have to rely on people to drive us home?), but it also does not mean we need to kick out of them by denying or reversing their force – not least because it, ultimately, does not work.

The idea that gender equality, especially in heterosexual partnerships, benefits from the reversal of the trope of the uncommitted, eternally unreliable bachelor in the way that tips the balance in an entirely opposite direction (other than for very short periods of time, of course) strikes me as one of the manifestations of the long tail of post- or anti-feminist backlash – admittedly, a mild and certainly less harmful one than, for instance, the idea that feminism means ‘women are better than men’ or that feminists seek to eliminate men from politics, work, or anything else (both, worryingly, have filtered into public discourse). It also strikes me that the long-suffering Sacrificial Men who have politely taken shit from their objects of affection can all-too-easily be converted into Men’s Rights Activists or incels if and when their long suffering fails to yield results – for instance, when their Manic Pixie leaves with someone with a spine (not a Bad Boy, just a man with boundaries) – or when they realize that the person they have been playing Good Daddy to has finally grown up and left home.

Women and space

Mum in space

Recently, I saw two portrayals of women* in space, Proxima – starring Eva Green as the female member of the crew training for the first mission to Mars; and Away, starring Hilary Swank as the commander of the crew on the first mission to Mars (disclaimer: I have only seen the first two episodes of Away, so I’m not sure what happens in the rest of the series). Both would have been on my to-watch list even under normal circumstances; I grew up on science fiction, and, as any woman who, in Rebecca West’s unsurpassed formulation, expresses opinions that distinguish her from a doormat, have spent a fair bit of time thinking about gender, achievement, and leadership. This time, an event coloured my perception of both: my mum’s death in October.

My mother was 80; she died of complications related to metastatic cancer, which had started as breast cancer but had at this point spread to her liver. She had dealt with cancer intermittently since 2009; had had a double mastectomy and repeated chemotherapy/radiation at relatively regular intervals since – in 2011, 2015, 2018 and, finally, 2020 – the last one stopping shortly after it started, as it became evident that it could not reverse the course of Mum’s illness and was, effectively, making it worse.

As anyone living with this kind of illness knows, it’s always a long game of predicting and testing, waiting when the next one will come up; it’s possible that the cancer that eventually killed my mum was missed because of flaky screening in November, or because of delays at the height of the pandemic. What matters is that, by the time they discovered it during a regular screening in June, it was already too late.

What matters is that, because living with this sort of illness entails living in segments of time between two appointments, two screenings, two test results, we had kind of expected this. We had time to prepare. My mother had time to prepare. I had time to prepare. What also matters is that I was able to travel, to leave the country in time to see my mother still alive, despite the fact that at that time the Home Office had been sitting on my Tier 2 visa application since the start of July, and on the request for expedition due to compassionate circumstances for three weeks. This matters, because many other women are not so lucky as to have the determination to call the Home Office visa processing centre three times, the cultural capital to contact their MP when it seemed like time was running out, nor, for that matter, an MP (also a woman) who took on the case. It matters, because I was able to be there for the last two weeks of my mother’s life. I was there when she died.

But this essay isn’t about me, or my mum. It’s about women, and the stars.

Women and the stars

Every story about the stars is, in essence, a story of departure from Earth, and thus a story of separation, and thus a story of leaving, and what’s left behind. This doesn’t mean that these themes need to be parsed via the tired dichotomy of the ‘masculine-proactive-transcendent’ principle pitted against the ‘feminine-grounded-immanent’, but they often are, and both Proxima and Away play out this tension.

For those who had not seen either or both, Proxima and Away are about women who are travelling into space. Proxima’s Sarah (Eva Green) is the French member of the international crew of astronauts spending a year at the International Space Station in preparation for the first mission to Mars.  

The central tension develops along two vectors: the characters’ relation to their male partners (Sarah’s – ex – Thomas, Emma’s Matt); and their relationship to their daughters – Sarah’s Stella, and Emma’s Alexis (‘Lex’). While the relationship to their partners is not irrelevant, it is obvious that the mother-daughter relationship is central to the plot. Neither is it accidental that both (and only) children are girls: in this sense, the characters’ relationship to their daughters is not only the relationship to the next generation of women, it is also the relationship to their ‘little’ selves. In this sense, the daughters’ desire for their mother’s to return – or to stay, to never leave for the stars – is also a reflection of their own desire to give up, to stay in the comfort of the ground, the Earth, the safe (if suffocating) embrace of family relations and gender roles, in which ‘She’ is primarily, after all, a Mother.

It is interesting that both characters, in Proxima and in Away, find similar ‘solutions’ – or workarounds – for this central tension. In Proxima, Sarah leaves her daughter, but betrays her own commitment by violating pre-flight quarantine regulations, sneaking out the night before departure to take her daughter to see the rocket from up close. In Away, Emma decides to return from pre-flight Lunar base after her husband has a heart attack, only to be persuaded to stay, both by the (slowly recovering) husband and, more importantly, by the daughter, who – at the last minute – realizes the importance of the mission and says she wants her mum to stay, rather than return to Earth. The guilt both women feel over ‘abandoning’ their daughters (and thus their own traditional roles) is thus compensated or resolved by inspiring the next generation of women to ‘look at the stars’: to aim higher, and to prioritize transcendence at the cost of immanence, even when the price is pain.     

We might scoff at the simple(ish) juxtaposition of Earth and the stars, but the essence of that tension is still there, no matter how we choose to frame it. It is the basic tension explored in Simone de Beauvoir’s existentialist philosophy – the tension between being-for-themselves and being-in-relation to. It’s the unforgiving push and pull that leads so many women to take on disproportionate amounts of emotional, care, and organizational labour. It’s a tension you can’t resolve, no matter how queer, trans, or childless. Even outside of ‘traditional’ gender roles, women are still judged first and foremost on their ability to conceive and retain relationships; research on women leaders, for instance, shows they are required to consistently demonstrate a ‘collective’ spirit of the sort not expected of their male counterparts.

A particularly brutal version of this tension presented itself in the months before my mother died. I was stuck in England, not being able to leave before my Tier 2 visa was approved, and her condition was getting worse. Home Office was already behind their 8-week timeframe due to the pandemic; the official guidance – confirmed by the University – was that, if I chose to leave the country before the decision had been made, not only would I automatically forfeit my application, I would also be banned for a year from re-entering the country, and for a further year from re-applying for the same sort of permit. In essence, this meant I was choosing between my job – which I love – and my mother, which I loved too.

Luckily, I never had to make this choice; after a lot of intervention, my visa came through, and I was able to travel. I am not sure what kind of decision I would have made.

Mum and daughter in space

I saw Proxima in August, shortly after moving from Cambridge to Durham to start my job at the University. It was only the second time I was able to cry after having learned of my mum’s most recent, and final, diagnosis. I saw Away after returning from the funeral in early October, having acquired a Netflix account in a vague attempt at ‘self-care’ that didn’t involve reading analytic philosophy.

My mum saw neither, and I am not sure if she would have recognized herself in them. Hers was a generation of transcendence, buttressed by post-war recovery and socialism’s early successes in eradicating gender inequality. She introduced me to science fiction, but it was primarily Arthur Clarke, Isaac Assimov, and Stanislav Lem, my mum having no problems recognizing herself in the characters of Dave Bowman, Hari Seldon, or Rohan from ‘The Invincible’. Of course, as I was growing up, neither did I: it was only after I had already reached a relatively advanced career stage – and, it warrants mentioning, in particular after I began full-time living in the UK – that I started realizing how resolute the steel grip of patriarchy is in trying to make sure we never reach for the stars.

My mother famously said that she never considered herself a feminist, but had led a feminist life. By this, she meant that she had an exceptional career including a range of leadership positions, first in research, then in political advising, and finally in diplomacy; and that she had a child – me – as a single mother, without a partner involved. What she didn’t stop to think about was that, throughout this process, she had the support not only of two loving parents (both of my grandparents had already retired when I was born), but also of socialist housing, childcare, and education policies.I would point this fact out to her on the rare occasions when she would bring up her one remaining regret, which was that I choose not to have children. Though certainly aided by the fact I never felt the desire to, this decision was buttressed by my belief (and observation) that, no matter how dedicated, egalitarian, etc. etc. a partner can be, it is always mothers who end up carrying a greater burden of childcare, organization, and planning. I hope that she, in the end, understood this decision.

In one of the loveliest messages** I got after my mum died, a friend wrote that he believed my mum was now a star watching over me. As much as I would like to think that, if anything, the experience of a death has resolutely convinced me there is no ‘thereafter’, no space, place, or plane where we go after we die.

But I’m still watching the stars.  

This image is, sadly, a pun that’s untraslateable into English; sorry

* For avoidance of doubt, trans women are women

**Throughout the period, I’ve received absolutely stellar messages of love and support. Among these, it warrants saying, quite a few came from men, but those that came from women were exceptional in striking the balance between giving me space to think my own thoughts and sit with my own grief, while also making sure I knew I could rely on their support if I wanted to. This kind of balance, I think, comes partly out of having to always negotiate being-for-oneself and being-for-others, but there is a massive lesson in solidarity right in there.

Existing while female

Space

The most threatening spectacle to the patriarchy is a woman staring into space.

I do not mean in the metaphorical sense, as in a woman doing astronomy or astrophysics (or maths or philosophy), though all of these help, too. Just plainly sitting, looking into some vague mid-point of the horizon, for stretches of time.

I perform this little ‘experiment’ at least once per week (more often, if possible; I like staring into space). I wholly recommend it. There are a few simple rules:

  • You can look at the passers-by (a.k.a. ‘people-watching’), but try to avoid eye contact longer than a few seconds: people should not feel that they are particular objects of attention.
  • If you are sitting in a café, or a restaurant, you can have a drink, ideally a tea or coffee. That’s not saying you shouldn’t enjoy your Martini cocktails or glasses of Chardonnay, but images of women cradling tall glasses of alcoholic drink of choice have been very succesfully appropriated by both capitalism and patriarchy, for distinct though compatible purposes.
  • Don’t look at your phone. If you must check the time or messages it’s fine, but don’t start staring at it, texting, or browsing.
  • Don’t read (a book, a magazine, a newspaper). If you have a particularly interesting or important thought feel free to scribble it down, but don’t bury your gaze behind a notebook, book, or a laptop.

Try doing this for an hour.

What this ‘experiment’ achieves is that it renders visible the simple fact of existing. As a woman. Even worse, it renders visible the process of thinking. Simultaneously inhabiting an inner space (thinking) and public space (sitting), while doing little else to justify your existence.

NOT thinking-while-minding-children, as in ‘oh isn’t it admirrrrable that she manages being both an academic and a mom’.

NOT any other form of ‘thinking on our feet’ that, as Isabelle Stengers and Vinciane Despret (and Virginia Woolf) noted, was the constitutive condition for most thinking done by women throughout history.

The important thing is to claim space to think, unapologetically and in public.

Depending on place and context, this usually produces at least one of the following reactions:

  • Waiting staff, especially if male, will become increasingly attentive, repeatedly inquiring whether (a) I am alright (b) everything was alright (c) I would like anything else (yes, even if they are not trying to get you to leave, and yes, I have sat in the same place with friends, and this didn’t happen)
  • Men will try to catch my eye
  • Random strangers will start repeatedly glancing and sometimes staring in my direction.

I don’t think my experience in this regard is particularly exceptional. Yes, there are many places where women couldn’t even dream of sitting alone in public without risking things much worse than uncomfortable stares (I don’t advise attempting this experiment in such places). Yes, there are places where staring into a book/laptop/phone, ideally with headphones on, is the only way to avoid being approached, chatted up, or harassed by men. Yet, even in wealthy, white, urban, middle-class, ‘liberal’ contexts, women who display signs of being afflicted by ‘the life of the mind’ are still somehow suspect. For what this signals is that it is, actually, possible for women to have an inner life not defined by relation to men, if not particular men, then at least in the abstract.

Relations

‘Is it possible to not be in relation to white men?’, asks Sara Ahmed, in a brilliant essay on intellectual genealogies and institutional racism. The short answer is yes, of course, but not as long as men are in charge of drawing the family tree. Philosophy is a clear example. Two of my favourite philosophers, De Beauvoir and Arendt, are routinely positioned in relation to, respectively, Sartre and Heidegger (and, in Arendt’s case, to a lesser degree, Jaspers). While, in the case of De Beauvoir, this could be, to a degree, justified – after all, they were intellectual and writing partners for most of Sartre’s life – the narrative is hardly balanced: it is always Simone who is seen in relation to Jean-Paul, not the other way round*.

In a bit of an ironic twist, De Beauvoir’s argument in the Second Sex that a woman exists only in relation to a man seems to have been adopted as a stylistic prescription for narrating intellectual history (I recently downloaded an episode of In Our Time on De Beauvoir only to discover, in frustration, that it repeats exactly this pattern). Another example is the philosopher GEM Anscombe, whose work is almost uniquely described in terms of her interpretation of Wittgenstein (she was also married to the philosopher Peter Geach, which doesn’t help). A great deal of Anscombe’s writing does not deal with Wittgenstein, but that is, somehow, passed over, at least in non-specialist circles. What also gets passed over is that, in any intellectual partnership or friendship, ideas flow in both directions. In this case, the honesty and generosity of women’s acknowledgments (and occasional overstatements) of intellectual debt tends to be taken for evidence of incompleteness of female thinking; as if there couldn’t, possibly, be a thought in their ‘pretty heads’ that had not been placed there by a man.

Anscombe, incidentally, had a predilection for staring at things in public. Here’s an excerpt from the Introduction to the Vol. 2 of her collected philosophical papers, Metaphysics and the philosophy of mind:

“The other central philosophical topic which I got hooked on without realising it was philosophy, was perception (…) For years I would spend time in cafés, for instance, staring at objects saying to myself: ‘I see a packet. But what do I really see? How can I say that I see here anything more than a yellow expanse?’” (1981: viii).

But Wittgenstein, sure.

Nature

Nature abhors a vacuum, if by ‘nature’ we mean the rationalisation of patriarchy, and if by ‘vacuum’ we mean the horrifying prospect of women occupied by their own interiority, irrespectively of how mundane or elevated its contents. In Jane Austen’s novels, young women are regularly reminded that they should seem usefully occupied – embroidering, reading (but not too much, and ideally out loud, for everyone’s enjoyment), playing an instrument, singing – whenever young gentlemen came for a visit. The underlying message is that, of course, young gentlemen are not going to want to marry ‘idle’ women. The only justification for women’s existence, of course, is their value as (future) wives, and thus their reproductive capital: everything else – including forms of internal life that do not serve this purpose – is worthless.

Clearly, one should expect things to improve once women are no longer reduced to men’s property, or the function of wives and mothers. Clearly, they haven’t. In Motherhood, Sheila Heti offers a brilliant diagnosis of how the very question of having children bears down differently on women:

It suddenly seemed like a huge conspiracy to keep women in their thirties—when you finally have some brains and some skills and experience—from doing anything useful with them at all. It is hard to when such a large portion of your mind, at any given time, is preoccupied with the possibility—a question that didn’t seem to preoccupy the drunken men at all (2018: 98).

Rebecca Solnit points out the same problem in The Mother of All Questions: no matter what a woman does, she is still evaluated in relation to her performance as a reproductive engine. One of the messages of the insidious ‘lean-in’ kind of feminism is that it’s OK to not be a wife and a mother, as long as you are remarkably successful, as a businesswoman, a political leader, or an author. Obviously, ‘ideally’, both. This keeps women stressed, overworked, and so predictably willing to tolerate absolutely horrendous working conditions (hello, academia) and partnerships. Men can be mediocre and still successful (again, hello, academia); women, in order to succeed, have to be outstanding. Worse, they have to keep proving their oustandingness; ‘pure’ existence is never enough.

To refuse this – to refuse to justify one’s existence through a retrospective or prospective contribution to either particular men (wife of, mother of, daughter of), their institutions (corporation, family, country), or the vaguely defined ‘humankind’ (which, more often than not, is an extrapolation of these categories) – is thus to challenge the washed-out but seemingly undying assumption that a woman is somehow less-worthy version of a man. It is to subvert the myth that shaped and constrained so many, from Austen’s characters to Woolf’s Shakespeare’s sister: that to exist a woman has to be useful; that inhabiting an interiority is to be performed in secret (which meant away from the eyes of the patriarchy); that, ultimately, women’s existence needs to be justified. If not by providing sex, childbearing, and domestic labour, then at least indirectly, by consuming stuff and services that rely on underpaid (including domestic) labour of other women, from fashion to IPhones and from babysitting to nail salons. Sometimes, if necessary, also by writing Big Books: but only so they could be used by men who see in them the reflection of their own (imagined) glory.

Death

Heti recounts another story, about her maternal grandmother, Magda, imprisoned in a concentration camp during WWII. One day, Nazi soldiers came to the women’s barracks and asked for volunteers to help with cooking, cleaning and scrubbing in the officers’ kitchen. Magda stepped forward; as Heti writes, ‘they all did’. Magda was not selected; she was lucky, as it soon transpired that those women were not taken to the kitchen, but rather raped by the officers and then killed.

I lingered over the sentence ‘they all did’ for a long time. What would it mean for more women to not volunteer? To not accept endlessly proving one’s own usefulness, in cover letters, job interviews, student feedback forms? To simply exist, in space?

I think I’ll just sit and think about it for a while.

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(The photo is by the British photographer Hannah Starkey, who has a particular penchant for capturing women inhabiting their own interiority. Thank you to my partner who first introduced me to her work, the slight irony being that he interrupted me in precisely one such moment of contemplation to tell me this).

*I used to make a point of asking the students taking Social Theory to change ‘Sartre’s partner Simone de Beauvoir’ in their essays to ‘de Beauvoir’s partner Jean-Paul Sartre’ and see if it begins to read differently.

A fridge of one’s own

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A treatise on the education of women, 1740. Museum of European Students, Bologna

 

A woman needs a fridge of her own if she is to write theory. In fact, I’d wager a woman needs a fridge of her own if she is to write pretty much anything, but since what I am writing at the moment is (mostly) theory, let’s assume that it can serve as a metaphor for intellectual labour more broadly.

In her famous injunction to undergraduates at Girton College in Cambridge (the first residential college for women that offered education to degree level) Virginia Woolf stated that a woman needed two things in order to write: a room of her own, and a small independent income (Woolf settled on 500 pounds a year; as this website helpfully informed me, this would be £29,593 in today’s terms). In addition to the room and the income,  a woman who wants to write, I want to argue, also needs a fridge. Not a shelf or two in a fridge in a kitchen in a shared house or at the end of the staircase; a proper fridge of her own. Let me explain.

The immateriality of intellect

Woolf’s broader point in A Room of One’s Own is that intellectual freedom and creativity require the absence of material constraints. In and of itself, this argument is not particularly exceptional: attempts to define the nature of intellectual labour have almost unfailingly centred on its rootedness in leisure – skholē – as the opportunity for peaceful contemplation, away from the vagaries of everyday existence. For ancient Greeks, contemplation was opposed to the political (as in the everyday life of the polis): what we today think of as the ‘private’ was not even a candidate, being the domain of women and slaves, neither of which were considered proper citizens. For Marx, it was  the opposite of material labour, with its sweat, noise, and capitalist exploitation. But underpinning it all was the private sphere – that amorphous construct that, as feminist scholars pointed out, includes the domestic and affective labour of care, cleaning, cooking, and, yes, the very act of biological reproduction. The capacity to distance oneself from these kinds of concerns thus became the sine qua non of scholarly reflection, particularly in the case of theōria, held to be contemplation in its pure(st) form. After all, to paraphrase Kant, it is difficult to ponder the sublime from too close.

This thread runs from Plato and Aristotle through Marx to Arendt, who made it the gist of her analysis of the distinction between vita activa and vita contemplativa; and onwards to Bourdieu, who zeroed in on the ‘scholastic reason’ (raison scolastique) as the source of Homo Academicus’ disposition to project the categories of scholarship – skholē – onto everyday life. I am particularly interested in the social framing of this distinction, given that I think it underpins a lot of contemporary discussions on the role of universities. But regardless of whether we treat it as virtue, a methodological caveat, or an interesting research problem, detachment from the material persists as the distinctive marker of the academic enterprise.

 

What about today?

So I think we can benefit from thinking about what would be the best way to achieve this absolution from the material for women who are trying to write today. One solution, obviously, would be to outsource the cooking and cleaning to a centralised service – like, for instance, College halls and cafeterias. This way, one would have all the time to write: away with the vile fridge! (It was anyway rather unseemly, poised as it was in the middle of one’s room). Yet, outsourcing domestic labour means we are potentially depriving other people of the opportunity to develop their own modes of contemplation. If we take into account that the majority of global domestic labour is performed by women, perfecting our scholarship would most likely be off the back of another Shakespeare’s (or, for consistency’s sake, let’s say Marx’s) sister. So, let’s keep the fridge, at least for the time being.

But wait, you will say, what about eating out – in restaurants and such? It’s fine you want to do away with outsourced domestic labour, but surely you wouldn’t scrap the entire catering industry! After all, it’s a booming sector of the economy (and we all know economic growth is good), and it employs so many people (often precariously and in not very nice conditions, but we are prone to ignore that during happy hour). Also, to be honest, it’s so nice to have food prepared by other people. After all, isn’t that what Simone de Beauvoir did, sitting, drinking and smoking (and presumably also eating) in cafés all day? This doesn’t necessarily mean we would need to do away with the fridge, but a shelf in a shared one would suffice – just enough to keep a bit of milk, some butter and eggs, fruit, perhaps even a bottle of rosé? Here, however, we face the economic reality of the present. Let’s do a short calculation.

 

£500 a year gets you very far…or not

The £29,593 Woolf proposes as sufficient independent income comes from an inheritance. Those of us who are less fortunate and are entering the field of theory today can hope to obtain one of many scholarships. Mine is currently at £13,900 a year (no tax); ESRC-funded students get a bit more, £14,000. This means we fall well short of today’s equivalent of 500 pound/year sum Woolf suggested to students at Girton. Starting from £14,000, assuming that roughly £2000 pounds annually are spent on things such as clothes, books, cosmetics, and ‘incidentals’ – for instance, travel to see one’s family or medical costs (non-EU students are subject to something called the Immigration Health Surcharge, paid upfront at the point of application for a student visa, which varies between £150 and £200 per year, but doesn’t cover dental treatment, prescriptions, or eye tests – so much for “NHS tourism”) – this leaves us with roughly £1000 per month. Out of this, accommodation costs anything between 400 and 700 pounds, depending on bills, council tax etc. – for a “room of one’s own”, that is, a room in a shared house or college accommodation – that, you’re guessing it, almost inevitably comes with a shared fridge.

So the money that’s left is supposed to cover  eating in cafés, perhaps even an occasional glass of wine (it’s important to socialise with other writers or just watch the world go by). Assuming we have 450/month after paying rent and bills, this leaves us with a bit less than 15 pounds per day. This suffices for about one meal and a half daily in most cheap high street eateries, if you do not eat a lot, do not drink, nor have tea or coffee. Ever. Even at colleges, where food is subsidised, this would be barely enough. Remember: this means you never go out for a drink with friends or to a cinema, you never buy presents, never pay for services: in short, it makes for a relatively boring and constrained life. This could turn writing, unless you’re Emily Dickinson, somewhat difficult. Luckily, you have Internet, that is, if it’s included in your bills. And you pray your computer does not break down.

Well, you can always work, you say. If the money you’re given is not enough to provide the sort of lifestyle you want, go earn more! But there’s a catch. If you are in full-time education, you are only allowed to work part-time. If you are a foreign national, there are additional constraints. This means the amount of money you can get is usually quite limited. And there are tradeoffs. You know all those part-time jobs that pay a lot, offer stability and future career progression, and everyone is flocking towards? I don’t either. If you ever wondered where the seemingly inexhaustible supply of cheap labour at universities – sessional lecturers, administrative assistants, event managers, servers etc. came from, look around you: more likely than not, it’s hungry graduate students.

 

The poverty of student life

Increasingly, this is not in the Steve Jobs “stay hungry” sense. As I’ve argued recently, “staying hungry” has quite a different tone when instead of a temporary excursion into relative deprivation (seen as part of ‘character building’ education is supposed to be about) it reflects the threat of, virtually, struggling to make ends meet way after graduation. Given the state of the economy and graduate debt, that is a threat faced by growing proportions of young people (and, no surprise, women are much more likely to end up in precarious employment). Of course, you could always argue that many people have it much worse: you are (relatively) young, well educated, and with likely more cultural and social capital than the average person. Sure you can get by. But remember – this isn’t about making it from one day to another. What you’re trying to do is write. Contemplate. Comprehend the beauty (and, sometimes, ugliness) of the world in its entirety. Not wonder whether you’ll be able to afford the electricity bill.

This is why a woman needs to have her own fridge. If you want access to healthy, cheap food, you need to be able to buy it in greater quantities, so you don’t have to go to the supermarket every other day, and store it at home, so you can prepare it quickly and conveniently, as well as plan ahead. For the record, by healthy I do not mean quinoa waffles, duck eggs and shitake mushrooms (not that there’s anything wrong with any of these, though I’ve never tried duck eggs). I mean the sort of food that keeps you full whilst not racking up your medical expenses further down the line. For this you need a fridge. Not half a vegetable drawer among opened cans of lager that some bro you happen to share a house with forgot to throw away months ago, but an actual fridge. Of your own. It doesn’t matter if it comes with a full kitchen – you can always share a stove, wait for your turn for the microwave, and cooking (and eating) together can be a very pleasurable way of spending time. But keep your fridge.

 

Emotional labour

But, you will protest, what about women who live with partners? Surely we want to share fridges with our loved ones! Well, good for you, go ahead. But you may want to make sure that it’s not always you remembering to buy the milk, it’s not always you supplying fresh fruit and vegetables, it’s not always you throwing away the food whose use-by date had long expired. That it doesn’t mean you pay the half of household bills, but still do more than half the work. For, whether we like it or not, research shows that in heterosexual partnerships women still perform a greater portion of domestic labour, not to mention the mental load of designing, organising, and dividing tasks. And yes, this impacts your ability to write. It’s damn difficult to follow the line of thought if you need to stop five times in order to take the laundry out, empty the bins, close the windows because it just started raining, pick up the mail that came through the door, and add tea to the shopping list – not even mentioning what happens if you have children on top of all this.

So no, a fridge cannot – and will not – solve the problem of gender inequality in the academia, let alone gender inequality on a more general level (after all, academics are very, very privileged). What it can do, though, is rebalance the score in the sense of reminding us that cooking, cleaning, and cutting up food are elements of life as much as citing, cross-referencing, and critique. It can begin to destroy, once and for all, the gendered (and classed) assumption that contemplation happens above and beyond the material, and that all reminders of its bodily manifestations – for instance, that we still need to eat whilst thinking – should be if not abolished entirely, then at least expelled beyond the margins of awareness: to communal kitchens, restaurants, kebab vans, anywhere where they do not disturb the sacred space of the intellect. So keep your income, get a room, and put a fridge in it. Then start writing.