Bernard E. Harcourt | Introduction to Critique 3/13

By Bernard E. Harcourt 

In a very recent paper on the question of truth in these post-truth times, titled “The Last Refuge of Scoundrels: The Problem of Truth in A Time of Lying,” which I just posted on SSRN, I proposed in passing a critical return to Simone de Beauvoir’s brilliant text, The Second Sex. I offered Beauvoir’s intervention as perhaps the perfect illustration of what I describe as the need to always challenge our own unmaskings. I argued that successful critical texts unveil illusions, but do not reveal the truth, so much as another place from which we will need to unmask and unveil again. I wrote the following:

To give an overly simplistic but quick illustration of this unending cycle of critique, or what I call radical critical philosophy of illusions: Simone de Beauvoir’s brilliant writings on The Second Sex were a crucial critique and step forward that unveiled many of the illusions of patriarchy and male superiority; but they nevertheless reinforced notions of binary sexes and a certain essentialism that, even if it was better at the time, would later be unveiled and critiqued by queer theory, which would then be critiqued by trans* theory. De Beauvoir moved us forward and unveiled illusions, but did not reveal genuine interests or real truths, just better interpretations at the time that would call for more critical work.

The same could be said of Foucault’s writings: his analysis in The Punitive Society and Discipline and Punishexposed the illusion of Western Enlightenment thinking in the punishment field. It revealed that, instead of punishing less, they learned to punish better through mechanisms of discipline that included normalization, regimentation, and panopticism. Those interpretations of the punitive society and of disciplinary power were better, at the time in the early 1970s; but even Foucault himself, by 1979, would critique them for still placing too much emphasis on the coercive dimensions, for failing to highlight the pastoral elements of governing, for inadequately theorizing our own role in governance—the dimension of subjectivity. Foucault was actually one of the first to point these deficiencies out and to critique his own at-the-time better interpretations.

In my work, then, I develop a radical critical philosophy of illusions that unveils not to discover truth, but to offer a better interpretation that will quickly need to be critiqued. In this, I embrace the terminology of “illusions.”

In conversation with the philosopher Sabina Bremner, who has graciously agreed to translate Professor Judith Revel’s intervention for this seminar, I realized that Judith Butler had made a consonant point many years earlier in her article on Beauvoir in 1986. Butler’s piece, though, emphasized the element of “becoming” in Beauvoir’s work—an element that Judith Revel will focus on in her intervention. I anticipate that our discussion will focus on that aspect of Beauvoir’s work.

That element, however, raises a challenge to the reading I had proposed: if indeed Beauvoir’s text is primarily about “becoming,” might there not be inscribed in the critical move itself the possibility of overcoming the fixity of sex (above and beyond queering gender)? That is the question that I ask myself as I approach this critical rereading and return to Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. I hope you will join us for this conversation.

Welcome to Critique 3/13!

Welcome to Critique 3/13 on Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. I am delighted to welcome back Professor Judith Revel, a brilliant philosopher and professor of philosophy at the University of Paris—Nanterre.

We are at the new experimental campus for social inquiry at Aubervilliers, just north of Paris. The campus itself, which is called the Campus Condorcet, is in construction, this room, it feels like, is the only finished area, and everything else around here feels like a construction site in full operation—so thank you all for even finding this building (it took me several attempts).

We will conduct this session in both French and English. For the portions spoken in French, there are English translations of our presentations on the Critique 13/13 website. If you go to the 3/13 tab, on the right, you will see the blog posts: there, you will find English versions of our presentations in order to follow along when we turn to French. As I am about to do – so, for English speakers, please click on the post titled “Introduction.”

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We turn today – or as I have suggested in the earlier seminars, we “return” today – to a brilliant, transformative critical text from 1948: The Second Sex. And not just to a brilliant critical text, but as well, to two remarkable and equally brilliant critical texts that engage Beauvoir’s book in precisely the manner that I was hoping to deploy: the critical method.

We’ve been discussing at length, in the previous seminars, this idea of a critical method of reading, and I think that Judith Revel’s intervention is a perfect illustration of the critical method I have tried to identify:

  • To return to a critical text
  • Not to historicize it, or simply to place it in its historical context
  • But to identify critical moves, arguments, or articulations that we can then interrogate in the context of our present political struggles.

I believe that is what Judith Revel is about to do so brilliantly in her intervention. It is also what I see reflected in Judith Butler’s article from 1986 that I also posted on the website. It is placed in the readings tab, and it is called “Gender in Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex.” I will bring that second text into conversation during my remarks.

Let’s go straight into the discussion.

Judith Revel is a philosopher and Professor of philosophy at the University of Paris—Nanterre, where she is also a member of the Sophiapol laboratory (Sociologie, philosophie et socio-anthropologie politiques). She is a specialist of Foucault, Merleau-Ponty, and of contemporary political philosophy from Deleuze, Derrida, and Lefort, to Rancière, Agamben, Negri, and Esposito. She has written numerous books, including Foucault: Experiences de la pensée (2005), Dictionnaire Foucault (2007), Foucault, une pensée du discontinu (2010), Dictionnaire politique à l’usage des gouvernés (2012), and Foucault avec Merleau-Ponty. Ontologie politique, présentisme et histoire (2015). She also directed the Italian edition of Foucault’s Dits et Écrits (Feltrinelli, 1996-1998). She has worked extensively on contemporary regimes of governmentality, modes of subjectivation and practices of resistance, as well as on Italian readings of biopolitics.

Let’s begin with your presentation. For those following in English, there is a translation of Judith Revel’s essay on the site here. It has been brilliantly and beautifully translated by the philosopher Sabina Bremner at Columbia University.