Monday, July 09, 2012

A feminist art of living

There's an American feminist academic called Jacqueline Scott (and, as it happens, an English one too, but more on her later) who has explained what she calls her "Art of Living":
Practicing the art [of living] means consciously trying to flourish by resisting offered definitions and actively seeking to define oneself. Friedrich Nietzsche referred to these offered (he might also use the verb "imposed") definitions as "nooks". They can sometimes be nooks of comfort and security, but they can also be nooks of imprisonment.

Regular readers will know that I see this kind of attitude as central to liberal ideology. The liberal idea is that the highest good is an autonomy in which we are supposed to be self-determining or self-defining individuals. Therefore, whatever is predetermined in our identity is thought to impede us - it is thought of in limiting terms as a strait-jacket or, in Jacqueline Scott's terminology, an imprisonment.

She continues on with this:
The art of living involves making conscious decisions as to how one conceives of oneself and practices a meaningful life. The assumption underlying this art is that one's identity and conception of a meaningful life are "up for grabs". With the art of living, then, one does not "discover" one's self, one creates it.

What she is saying is that if you think of yourself as a self-defining individual, then you are assuming that you don't have any essential identity or nature; you begin as a blank slate and you go on to create yourself from your own "conscious decisions".

That is a kind of existentialism: a belief that existence precedes essence (i.e. that first we exist and then we create what we are). Existentialists like to talk about people having authentic selves, which has always struck me as odd - how can your self be authentic if you have no essence and just make up who you are?

Jacqueline Scott briefly touches on this issue:
It was at Spelman that I established my first guidelines for my practice of the art of living...avoid sacrificing my authentic self (meaning my conception of it) in the name of pleasing or placating someone else.

At least that's clearly put. She believes that you are being authentic if you follow your own concept of self rather than changing it to please someone else. The problem, as she herself notes, is that the self you are staying true to is just a conception you have of yourself. You could just as easily have a different one. So why not change it to please others?

Here's another odd thing about existentialist authenticity. Jacqueline Scott is a black American woman but she is engaged to a Jewish man and has converted to Judaism. And yet she is, as she discusses in her writings, a Nietzschean nihilist. She writes:
There were many other aspects of Judaism that seemed less "natural". How in the world could I pray to a God in whom I could not wholeheartedly believe?

Indeed. But I suppose that in some ways it's easier if you are an existentialist to accept such a situation. If you are only dealing in self-generated concepts, then being Jewish isn't so much about accepting the truth claims of Jewish theology, but about finding a way to work Judaism into an image of self.

Finally, the other striking thing about Jacqueline Scott's beliefs is that it's difficult to see how she has come independently to her own identity as her liberal/existentialist philosophy demands.

As we've seen, she adopted Judaism to fit in with her boyfriend's background. She got her feminism from her parents:
I grew up in a household in which both of my parents considered themselves feminists, and in mother was an active member of the Panel of American Women.

Her philosophy is also the standard one for Western intellectuals - she hasn't really avoided the spirit of the times in that regard. And, of course, her other sources of identity, of being black and a  woman are also things that she was born to.

So it's difficult to see her as a self-created entity. She has been influenced by the culture she grew up in, by her parents and her fiancee, and by inherited qualities of her sex and race. So her philosophy hasn't even worked out on its own terms.


  1. Mr. Richardson,

    You wicked, wicked man.

    You had me laughing as you analyzed the facets of Ms Scott's selfhood and asked how they are the product of her own choice, when they all seem to be the product of genetics or environments which have been imposed on her.

    May ancient Labradors mumble your sinful calves.

    Marcus Redman

    Halifax, Nova Scotia

  2. Marcus Redman,

    Now you've got me laughing. Thanks for the comment.

  3. Professing themselves wise, they became fools......These useful idiots will be among the first to be rounded up & shot when the Communist dictatorship that they so ardently desire & have worked so hard to clear the way for, is finally officially set up. There is a film from the 80's of a talk given by the Soviet defector Yuri Bezmenov which is very instructive in this regard. It's on you-tube & is well worth watching.

  4. Practicing the art [of living] means consciously trying to flourish by resisting offered definitions

    Yet she swallows Leftist dogma whole!

  5. What a boring life.

    You spend so much time defining yourself that you don't have time to simply "be".

  6. Once again I admire your ability to read this sort of stuff without your head exploding; and then parse the double talk and innuendo with insight. I can do it for brief periods only. I'm in awe, and very grateful.

    Document, save on memory sticks, and hide them before thought-crime swat teams arrive, because, after their house of cards collapses, the pampered, permanent adolescents that run our world will scapegoat hysterically - and then come the demagogues. They will exploit peoples who have had no Christian exposure whatsoever and have been brainwashed into thinking Chritianity is witch-burning. Because of diversity (i.e., envy of whites), there will be no ties to traditional Western culture.

    I remember talking to two blond early 20s fellows from Rhodesia in a bar in the USA in 1980. I asked them if they were worried. Oh no, we're going to stay, they said. I often wonder if those two young men are still alive. Would anyone else care to know?