When the phallic enters – reflection on the NSU feminist philosophy seminar

Reflection on the effect of attacking questions in a feminist philosophy seminar where the aim is to create a space for thinking together.

Feminist Philosophers in Estonia in the study hall

Some weeks ago I attended a feminist philosophy seminar. A whole week, organised by the Nordic Summer University, in which in total nine different weekly seminars are held simultaneously. One of which I have been attending now for three years: the feminist philosophy circle led by three courageous women. It is an interdisciplinary group, without hierarchies, where bachelor students and emiritus professors get equal space and attention, and increasingly intersectional. It is a week I long for, look forward to, every year. I am not sure what to do without it anymore. And why? Because somehow during their seminars this group manages to create a space where thinking can happen together.

This summer was no exception. And one particular session taught me once again, how delicate that balance is that is needed to achieve this special type of space. And how easily it can be destroyed – and with it, destroy some of the people involved.

So, what happened?

One morning the feminist philosophy circle had a joint session with another circle. The presenter in that session was one of the people I consider the core of the feminist circle, in how she asks questions, encourages people to think, her whole attitude is one of the reasons why this group has been so succesfull not only in attracting new people, but also in getting people to return to it every year. She had just finished her PhD and published her book, and presented not just her research but presented it in such a way that opened up a question to the whole group, generously asking everyone to think along with her, to think about what would happen if what she said were true. What if there is not just a phallic way of looking at the world, but another way? What would education and learning look like? What would relationships look like?

Unfortunately we never got round to getting into those questions. Even though we had quite some time. But the questions that were asked, or maybe better to say the comments that were made, led the discussion into a different direction. And I’ve been wondering why that happened. Why people let it happen.

It is understandible that when people who have a penis hear the word ‘phallic’ they get upset. Right? Just like it’s understandable that people in female bodies who are reduced to being nothing-but-female finally revolted after so many centuries, and still do. But I cannot understand why this, what is it, fear/anger/misconception/disagreement can hijack a whole space.

I did nothing

And I did nothing to change this direction. Actually, I went along with it. Several questions were asked, refusals to accept those terms, referring to the big guns like Immanuel Kant and who-else, refuting vigurously the need to polarize and the need for a term like ‘phallic’. And that is a valid question, as that is the basis of philosophy, that every question is valid, right? And so I went into the mode of the philosopher that I was trained to be, and refuted their arguments in equal terms. But why did I fall for it? Why did I not just say that what they now demanded was for me to take up the phallic methods I have been trained in as a university-trained philosopher, and that I wasn’t going to be tricked into that? What this space we had here was way too precious, that our basis for being here together was and is not framed in that manner. That the twenty feminist philosophers here were not trying to equate his having a penis to being a phallic person, as he accused us of, but that his attitude was phallic nonetheless and that it might not be a coincidence.

I went along, and the result was a philosophical debate. Although I dispise those kind of debates, as they stop people from listening and aim only at winning the argument. As this kind of debate destroys the possibility of thinking together.

Defending the indefensible

I went along because I wanted to defend that which is most dear to me. Defending something that cannot be obtained by arguments. I defended something that everyone who understood didn’t need to be argued for, and those that didn’t get it, would not get it through even the best of arguments. And I was reminded of what Bracha Ettinger siad about it, when I attended a seminar in Paris with her a few months ago… that language is the phallic realm, and still we need to use it, but we need to use it wisely. [paraphrasing based on memory]

Maybe this sounds as if there should not be any disagreements, or different ways of looking at things. This is not the case. Earlier that week someone fundamentally disagreed with something the keynote speaker, who was also one of the participants in our session, was saying. That was very interesting, as this disagreement showed what is at stake with our thinking, how each of us has assumptions and goals with her thinking and how important it is to keep questioning and reflecting on them. But that earlier disagreement didn’t end up in a debate, it was a sharing of thoughts in an open atmosphere that respected each of the sides presented. It was tense, because there was thinking at stake, not because there was an attack.

But that morning, the questions were fundamental attacks. And the space, at that moment, was destroyed. We were all confronted with what those of us working in philosophy departments and academic workspaces are confronted with many times, if not all the time. And perhaps this is something we need to think about more, as a group. Especially as now I’ll be one of the coordinators for the coming three years, where we will look at questions of hospitality and solidarity – precisely about the practise and problems indicated in this post, and beyond. How to moderate this seminar and these meetings, how to make sure that attacking questions are dismantled before they destroy the possibilities inherent in the space we are aiming to create.

Perhaps the validity of a question depends on the space in which the question is posed.

Disclaimer: As this is my own understanding of the situation, I have left out the arguments and content of the presentation, as well as names. This is written as a personal reflection about thought-exchange, and the creation of a space for thought, and not about whether or not the concept of the phallic is an important category of not. 


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