The Blog of Cafe Dissensus Magazine – we DISSENT

Liberal Vertigo, Eros, and the University

Photo: New Indian Express

By Brinda Bose and Rahul Sen

‘Coleman had by then been at Athena almost all his academic life, an outgoing, sharp-witted, forcefully smooth big-city charmer, something of a warrior, something of an operator, hardly the prototypical pedantic professor of Latin and Greek… was popular with students precisely because of everything direct, frank, and unacademically forceful in his comportment. “You know how European literature begins?” he’d ask, after having taken the roll at the first class meeting. “With a quarrel. All of European literature springs from a fight.” And then he picked up his copy of The Iliad and then read to the class the opening lines…

“…A quarrel, then, a brutal quarrel over a young girl and her young body and the delights of sexual rapacity: there, for better or worse, in this offense against the phallic entitlement, the phallic dignity, of a powerhouse of a warrior prince, is how the great imaginative literature of Europe begins, and that is why, close to three thousand years later, we are going to begin there today…”’

– Philip Roth, The Human Stain (2000: 4-5)

‘… several things dove-tailed in my mind, and at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason…’

– John Keats (letter, 1818)

‘We approach sex here as a site, therefore, at which relationality is invested with hopes, expectations, and anxieties that are often experienced as unbearable. Sex, though subject to the pressures of legal sanction, social judgment, unconscious drives, and contradictory desires, holds out the prospect of discovering new ways of being and of being in the world. But it also raises the possibility of confronting our limit in ourselves or in another… [we] approach the scene of relationality by focusing on the “negativity” that can make it so disturbing. Negativity for us refers to the psychic and social incoherences and divisions, conscious and unconscious alike, that trouble any totality or fixity of identity. It denotes, that is, the relentless force that unsettles the fantasy of sovereignty. But its effects, in our view, are not just negative, since negativity unleashes the energy that allows for the possibility of change.’

– Lauren Berlant and Lee Edelman, Sex, Or the Unbearable (2014: vii-viii)


‘Sex-Negativity, Or, “Yes I said yes I will Yes”’

In their dialogic text, Sex, or the Unbearable, Lauren Berlant and Lee Edelman propose that the site of sex opens up unbearable contradictions for the subject, and produces disturbances upon its encounter with the other. They explore the notion of “negativity” associated with sex: how such “negativity” may affect our politics and personhood, and how we may struggle to live with it. Berlant and Edelman acknowledge the pleasures and exultations of sex, and yet indicate a spillage or excess with regard to the sexual. It is this “nightmare of enjoyment,” as Edelman calls it elsewhere, that produces “anxiety” in the confrontation of our psychic limitations and contradictions, all of which seem “unbearable” and lead us towards negativity. Contra the sex-positive, sex-negativity, not in a moral sense but in its intuition of disturbances, is imbued in the destabilizing affects of sex that resist the totalizing impulse of identities. Instead of yielding pure pleasure or unadulterated delight, this may then add to our sense of enjoyment: the site of sex or intimacy undoes us in unanticipated ways, taking away from us all markers of certitude, coherence, and stability. But today in the inexorable climate of #MeToo, a safeguard is sought against the anxieties, afflictions and displacements that accompany desire through an overwhelming rhetoric of sexual harassment, abuse, trauma and affirmative consent, divesting it of the erotic.

The hysterical aftermath of #MeToo unleashed in limited, left-liberal, elite circles of academia in the United States and some other countries like India, has, in fact, resulted in a great disservice to the long, tough fight against sexual harassment/molestation/rape underway in all kinds of difficult locations ever since the beginnings of feminist consciousness. In a seismic shift to a politics of female victimhood, empathy and revenge, #MeToo has caused other damages too: to complex understandings of feminisms and queer sexualities, of course, as well as to the very idea of justice: by dismissing all notions of collateral damage caused by unsubstantiated “naming-and-shaming” of a “list” of alleged “savarna” sexual harassers. Rather astonishingly, all on “the list” belong to humanities and social science disciplines, a broadly left political persuasion, and a handful of well-established educational institutions in the country: this is a red flag.

#MeToo’s regressively-moral impact on academia is set to ruin all imaginative and political possibilities in the arts/humanities classroom, one of the locations it specifically targets – causing a ravaging of every idea of life dreamt, thought and lived passionately. Sex-positivism wise new feminists may decry by pointing to hidden machinations of masculine power in all sexual relationships, but sex-negativity – in the formulation of Berlant and Edelman – is the complex stuff of love that appears to be little comprehended.

In the #MeToo era, “trauma” has since emerged as the haunting spirit of our times. The political model of sieving trauma as truth of the female subject runs the risk of what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has called, in another context, “the danger of a single story” (2009). In this age of moral panic, conversations around sex are becoming devoid of pleasure and humour; sex bleakly anxiety-laden, at the edge of a precipice, swift to slide into coercion, harassment and abuse. Queer theorist Jack Halberstam, strongly endorsing #MeToo, writes: “heterosexuality is the normalization of abuse… Heterosexuality promotes, depends upon and perpetuates gendered hierarchies, sexual assault and the suppression of feminine people” (2017). What Halberstam does effectively is crystallize the category of “womanhood” in a heterosexual matrix, as an identity now predicated on hurt or injury. As a female friend speculated, how would things be different had #MeToo considered pleasurable, and not coerced, sex: a profusion of testimonies and narratives about women’s orgasms and jouissance, flowing over, and with, her pique and her pain? How would the moral brigade respond to a legion of Molly Blooms with their narratives of complicated excess? – “no thats no way for him has he no manners nor no refinement nor no nothing in his nature slapping us behind like that on my bottom because I didnt call him Hugh the ignoramus that doesnt know poetry from a cabbage thats what you get for not keeping them in their proper place pulling off his shoes and trousers there on the chair before me so barefaced without even asking permission…

… and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes” (2002: 726-732)


‘Let’s face it. We’re undone by each other.’[i]

In her introduction to Women in Dark Times, Jacqueline Rose asks, “what, for women, are the wages of fear? This is a question that has returned to recent feminisms. If fear is something women experience, it is also something they are instructed to feel… Fear is not a signal. It can also be a demand. Women have to feel scared… Let women be fearful so men can feel brave and safe” (2014: 9-10). Many of our engagements with feminism, and later queer politics, started with the idea of ‘transgression’ – of established patriarchal norms and moral behavior – and the sheer risk, thrill and pleasure that it had to offer. It always entailed chances of failure, disappointment, pain, alongside moments of exhilaration, profanation, madness, rapture and delectation. Though Judith Butler has demonstrated that transgression may not always imply subversion, we would still ascribe it a higher place than unthinking complacency with the norm of seeking safety and protection. In today’s feminist struggles, overwhelmed by narratives of exploitation and dominance, one wonders what transpired of the allure of, and desire for, transgression – for taking risks, embracing its erotics, being improper, immoral, irresponsible, indecent, hedonist, failing miserably and yet savouring the tragedy, of redoing its boundaries to prepare better (or fail better, as Beckett would implore) for future risk?

Recent feminist movements in India that challenged the gendering of public spaces such as ‘Take Back the Night’, ‘Pinjra Tod’ and ‘Why Loiter?’ had repudiated the patriarchal rhetoric of “safety” and “protection”, and by combating fear head on, espoused a politics of risk in reclaiming night streets symbolically. They championed a feminist politics of subverting the ideologies of protectionism; of surviving and manipulating patriarchy, even if momentarily, in startling ways. Post #MeToo, one has witnessed the dissipation of the erstwhile rhetoric of transgression and risk in many of these youth movements for sexual freedom, supplanted by a demand for “safety”, propelled by an unimaginative moral uprightness to obliterate the ferment of the erotic under the banner of “affirmative consent.” The irony lies in “safety” now becoming the radical feminist vocabulary overnight, in place of “risk”.

This deadly groundswell has invaded the humanities classroom, always a space of argument and imagination, sometimes horrifying and occasionally glorious. This classroom shows both teacher and student the unimaginable highs and lows that come from living intensely through word, figure, song, and action – and it is in this that the classroom itself transforms into an erotic space of learning about life while living it. Laura Kipnis has argued that anti-sexual harassment laws attempt to dilute the intellectual rigour of the classroom by striving to make it safe, sanitized (2017: 5). #MeToo has created a bizarre situation where protection is sought from unsettling ideas. But eros, or desire, must remain at the heart of learning or teaching methodologies; and like desire, education too must hold the power to disturb, disorient, and displace us from ourselves. Refusing paths of political correctness and certitude, education too must continue to embrace the morally ambiguous and the ambivalent, dislocating us from our cosy corners of cerebral comfort into terrains of imaginative adventure and danger. It is for an inability to negotiate with this risk of being intellectually displaced that students today leave the classroom during film screenings, or abstain from discussions that violate their mental sanctity, or advocate the banning of texts, theorists and authors that do not fit neatly within ‘clean’ moral categories. This is an insult to the humanities.

In fact, the only broad discipline that is severely impacted by the political implications of #MeToo is the humanities – comprising of literature, philosophy and the many arts of cinema, theatre, painting, dance and music – always taken up and historically driven by a sense of wonder, uncertainty, conflict and ambivalence, as well as rage, despair and death. None of these registers sit well in the current neo-feminist dispensation of unquestioning solidarity with the traumatized female victim of a hetero-erotic classroom. How did #MeToo manage to dilute a labyrinthine, voluptuous, turbulent human relationship marked by eros, and whittle it down to this piteous, anonymous, cowardly movement of mass hysteria about heartless male lovers in relationships gone wrong?

The humanities classroom is by its very nature one that shocks and awes. Confronted by Sylvia Plath’s terrifying poem ‘Daddy’ –

Every woman adores a Fascist,
The boot in the face, the brute
Brute heart of a brute like you. (1965) 

 – one is confounded out of moral valency, and compelled to confront the seductions of violence, the kinkiness of fantasies, the erotic allure of masochism, pain and brutality. Neither the #MeToo campaign, nor all available registers of legalities, can contend with these non-normative, murky terrains of desire or account for the fact that pain is continually contaminated with possibilities of pleasure. It therefore throws open a dangerous conceptual space where the sanity of certitude, logic and rationality is rendered dysfunctional, where one cannot find easy solutions and quick fixes to problems of consent, abuse and harassment in contexts of sexual desire; rather, we are propelled to work with our own psychic contradictions and moral ambiguities through a discomfiting pedagogy that demands of us to learn from the incalculable and the unverifiable. We are forced to encounter in the classroom work that might morally repel and yet entice through the political and the aesthetic. A humanities education effects violent realisations about the sadomasochistic nature of our erotic desires, that take us away from ourselves in sometimes wanting the very object that unsettles us in our politics and personhood – undoing our sense of coherence, fixity, and stability – and disclosing the terrible truth that none of us can claim to occupy a political position of pure moral righteousness.


Sexual Paranoia: #MeToo and UGC Guidelines

The politics of #MeToo and the list of alleged sexual harassers in Indian academia seem to uncannily mirror the paternalistic anti-sexual harassment laws that regulate institutions of higher education in the country. The University Grants Commission (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal of Sexual Harassment of Women Employees and Students in Higher Educational Institutions) Regulations, 2015, adopted by all public and private universities in India, effectively reduces the personhood of women to potential victims, and buttresses an infantilized, heteronormative model of femininity even before women have entered university campuses. University administrations, mostly patriarchal and casteist, use the law as an alibi to authorize its rhetoric of “protecting” women students – through an imposition of curfews on hostel timings, restrictions on mobility of women students, discriminatory pricing of hostels for women, whimsical punishments in the name of “disciplinary measures” and a regular witch hunt of women who dare to question their lack of freedom. #MeToo can ironically be located on the side of the patriarchal university administration through their shared institutional rhetoric of “safety”, “protection” and “care”. By disallowing women any agency and personhood except in terms of potential victims of abuse who need protection, both the administration and ‘the list’ apparently differ not at all in their political imagination of women’s freedom, which they see in safety rather than in risk.

#MeToo and the UGC guidelines have managed to create an eroto-phobic ambience on university campuses that seeks to purge desire, politics, and queerness from all practices of pedagogy and leisure. The UGC handbook prohibits “sexual harassment” variously defined as “an unwanted conduct with sexual undertones if it occurs or which is persistent…”, “making sexually coloured remarks”, “showing pornography” (2015)[ii] – in this time of escalated panic about sexualities, these laws and guidelines are anathema to the humanities classroom. Laura Kipnis pointed out that “the culture of sexual paranoia … isn’t confined to the sexual sphere. It’s fundamentally altering the intellectual climate of higher education as a whole, to the point where ideas are construed as threats…”

The #MeToo movement is built on sexual paranoia, distinct from allegations substantiated by specific charges, investigated and proven, which would fall in the “due process” trajectory. “Due process”, derived from clause 39 of the Magna Carta enacted from King John of England in 1215, states: “No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way…”[iii] The essence of due process is fairness without prejudice to both accuser and accused, in direct opposition to whisper campaigns that rely on certain effects of affect – fear, secrecy, anonymity and empathy – which must then remain true to their claim of illegitimacy without pretensions to a validity they cannot substantiate, and take responsibility for all collateral damage caused. In the classroom, the humanities scholar made to suffer the ignominy of being deprived of the freedom to know and think about life at large is the collateral damage caused by #MeToo today.

In his compelling play Oleanna (1993), David Mamet explores some contentious themes around sexual harassment and intellectual pursuit. Carol, a university student files a complaint against her professor, John, accusing him of sexual harassment. However, Carol’s sense of hurt at being abused does not simply arise from her professor saying that he “liked” her, or him putting his arm around her, or saying that “he wanted to take off the artificial stricture of Teacher and Student”; but something far more fundamental and insidious. Carol is offended by John’s critique of conventional higher education, his questioning of norms and codes that have bureaucratized educational practices.

Mamet’s play discloses the close bonds between intellectual life and sexual life; an offence swiftly slides from academic abuse to sexual harassment. Laura Kipnis had written: “… paranoia is a formula for intellectual rigidity, and its inroads on campus are so effectively dumbing down the place that the traditional ideal of the university – as a refuge for complexity, a setting for the free exchange of ideas – is getting buried under an avalanche of platitudes and fear” (2017:5). Patriarchy has now extended its reach: safety and protection has to be sought from ideas, authors, artists, and any work that disturbs. In Mamet’s play, Carol repudiates John on similar grounds:

“You love the Power. To deviate. To invent, to transgress … to transgress whatever norms have been established for us. And you think it’s charming to “question” …” (1993)

Allegations of sexual harassment or abuse are not made, or rather cannot be made in a vacuous political climate, they are inextricably intertwined with other experiential factors involved in learning and teaching. The trailer of the film adaptation of Oleanna conveys this moral ambiguity, announcing: “Whatever side you take… You’re wrong.”


Liberal Vertigo

The opening scene of Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) famously fixes, transfixes and re-fixes the adventure of male-female sexual gazing well before an illicit relationship commences between Scottie and Madeleine/Judy in this psychological thriller classic. It is a film about looking, about obsessive love and desire, and about disorientation in gazing, following, falling, saving, dying – signified by the condition of vertigo that Scottie suffers. Vertigo is defined as “a false sense of rotational movement” often caused by acrophobia, “an extreme fear of heights”. Vertigo may be said to be, therefore, an (illusory) adventure (of a sensation of rotational movement in the head) that is caused by an apprehension of adventure (scaling heights), one that is effected by and a response to adventure, both real and imagined. The liberal elite associated with a handful of universities in India, torpedoed by the effects of the #MeToo movement among certain social classes and occupations, seems to be in such a vertiginous spin about an erotic trace in the teaching-learning experience at university. A liberal vertigo is set to overtake our university classrooms: how can we rescue life and literature from this affliction?

In the meantime, Giorgio Agamben’s short, power-packed rumination, The Adventure, has arrived serendipitously in English translation[i] this year. Dancing through a minefield of literary offerings to deduce what an adventurous life may be signified by, what Agamben establishes at the start of this intense engagement with the idea of adventure, is the lure of adventure whether with positive or negative outcome, its central role in life as an encounter with the world and oneself, and its inevitable translation into some form of narrative. In this way does adventure connect life and the arts, an artery that pulses with desire and awe, Agamben says.  What kind of survival will cutting this chord result in?

In a chapter titled ‘Eros’, Agamben writes: “The idea that adventure is something external – and therefore eccentric and bizarre – with respect to ordinary life defines its modern conception” (2018:47), and in a close reading of an essay by German philosopher Georg Simmel demonstrates the fallacy of not accepting the idea of adventure in its medieval sense. Agamben finds that Heidegger’s student Oskar Becker had successfully attempted to develop a philosophical theory of adventure: ‘the condition of an existence – such as that of the artist – that is placed in between “the extreme insecurity of being-thrown and the absolute security of being-carried”… It is significant here that the artist takes the place of the knight as the subject of the adventure’ (2018:56-7). This moment of the in-between that Agamben infers from Becker is one of un-knowing, of risk, of uncertainty, of im/possibility impelled by demonic destiny, chance and hope that is the charge of eros and of life, signified by/as adventure. For Agamben, the adventurous knight of medieval lore becomes interchangeable with the adventurous artist.

There are different interpretations of adventure, of course. Alain Badiou writes in In Praise of Love, “We could say love is a tenacious adventure. The adventurous side is necessary, but equally so is the need for tenacity… I am really interested in the time love endures.” (2012:32-3) Blurbs for Badiou’s treatise hail it as a defense of love in a world overrun by desire, hedonism and pornography. Badiou, one infers, sees love as an adventure that moves from the loneliness of being “One” to the security of what he evocatively calls the “Two Scene”, a passage paved by tenacity leading to endurance – in contrast to Agamben’s sense of adventure, that immerses living and loving in perennial risk, an injection of the erotic that provides the impulse to show and tell, producing art.

In April 2018, there was a call for women in India to black out social media profile pictures “to show men what a world without women would be like”. One was reminded of Aristophane’s comedy Lysistrata, in which the women of Greece attempted to end the Peloponnesian War by denying men sex. But of course, now there is no comedy: sex is always and only patriarchal, spiraling all women everywhere into a vortex of female fear, resentment, outrage and suffering. It spawns sisterhoods of empathy and terror, devoid of laughter and lightness, of sexual passion, play, banter, risk and transgression that constitute the imaginative possibilities of the arts. Lysistrata has been enjoyed by generations of literature students for its boisterous energy and sexual, comic spirit embodied by raucous women. Soon it will be incomprehensible in classrooms, that women’s solidarity can be impetuous, rollicking and bawdy when it is about sex.


Liberal Conservatism

Talking about love and sex in literature and cinema in classes is now at extreme risk. Holding up vanguard liberal values against “the erotics of mentorship” espoused by Marta Figlerowicz and Ayesha Ramachandran, Corey Robin launches a relentless satire on the humanities classroom and its “elite” fixation on romancing the professor in his essay, “The Erotic Professor: Money and the murky boundary of teaching and sex” (2018). Robin appears to believe that plenty of time to waste (as professors of literature apparently have) as well as the luxury of teaching at rich/elite universities, allow for such an indulgence. He chides the essayists for not realizing that the portals of grimy university buildings (where he teaches, for example) are not conducive to romantic thoughts in the classroom: surely we are not to understand from this formulation that the poor and the overworked in the world do not have love and passion in their lives? That would have to be an astonishing inference, quite apart from the fact that griminess is relative: many public universities and colleges in the global south would give CUNY a run for its money on that score. There is no dearth, however, of erotic passion in their corridors, undeterred (if not stirred) by everyday squalor and stink.

The weakest link in Corey Robin’s argument is his engagement with Jane Gallop, English professor of feminist studies and controversial author of Feminist Accused of Sexual Harassment (1997). Gallop was accused by two female graduate students of sexual harassment in 1993 at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. Gallop denied the charge and eventually cleared her name but was given a black mark on her record for being guilty, in one case, of “violating” the university’s rule forbidding “consensual sexual relations” between a teacher and a student. Gallop then went on to write the book in which she argued for her idea of an erotic pedagogy in the classroom and in supervision.

Robin finds her attitude abominable, but cannot make her fit into the categories he has constructed for teachers who have leisure at elite institutions to pursue such indulgences as “sexualizing” their classrooms. He admits that Gallop was a democrat and not an exclusivist. What is at stake here, then? Gallop was a phenomenon, a distinguished literary scholar who declared that the erotic was necessary for the world, and the class, to go around. Her ideas were unacceptable to some, and she was put through a process of inquiry that was unable, finally, to criminalize her. Robin represents that large group of left liberal conservatives suspicious of any kind of creativity that sparks irrational passion at any given moment: he abhors the word “intensity”, but what of the arts can exist without it?

Robin’s discomfiture with Gallop points us to the very framing of his essay with its twin concerns: (class) exclusivity, and a threatening dyadic relationship verses a “healthy” community interaction. As Gallop’s case proves (and Robin admits), class is not necessarily a determining factor. We know this well enough in public universities in India. What is health here? And how is this health connected with Robin’s other term, “soul”? Robin writes that Jane Gallop’s intense interactions with her students “is shocking not because of the sex she reports with her students but because of the hours of shopping trips, dinners, movies, drinks, and tennis games with them. One student approaches Gallop after the second class of the semester, begging to talk. Gallop asks her to come to office hours the next morning. The student insists on an immediate audience. Gallop relents. What is so pressing that it can’t wait till morning? The student wants to ask Gallop to be her adviser. Gallop isn’t irritated; she’s ecstatic. It’s 9:30 at night.” We are not sure what makes Robin’s moral disquiet different here from that which is continually advocated by repressive university administrations in India for policing women students.

This is what, we suggest, signals the spiritualist turn that may take us straight to the anti-intellectual, anti-material path of serious conservatism from the liberal highway. Robin, who calls himself a left intellectual, quite remarkably uses the word “soul” numerous times as if he is in a transcendentalist séance; he vehemently objects to the term “intensity” in teacher-student interactions. Literature professors, it appears, always break the rules that the liberal conservative assembly has decreed for the university: humanities, as a discipline, clearly upsets the (renewed) moral order of things.


The Spectre of Marx

To engage with an avowed left intellectual who cries out for the soul in every paragraph of an essay railing against the idea of the erotic, it may help to go back to Marx himself. In The German Ideology, Towards a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right and The Jewish Question, one is pushed up against a relentless, and caustic, critique of abstract idealism, especially a world-historic sense of soulful unity which does not address questions of the living, material relations of production. To quote Marx:  “In direct contract to German philosophy which descends from Heaven to earth, here it is a matter of ascending from earth to Heaven. That is to say, not of setting out from what men say, imagine, conceive, nor from men as narrated, thought of, imagined, conceived, in order to arrive at men in the flesh; but setting out from real, active men, and on the basis of their real life-process demonstrating the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life-process.” Surely Marx’s life’s work was to displace this soul business and engage with an active materialism; consequently the declared aim of his critique is stacked up against the civil society variety of Young Hegelians, those who dabble in sentimental and populist spiritualism. It does appear that Robin’s dismay at the “genre of the erotic professor” is a bogey and a decoy; the real moral responsibility espoused is to take away from academia all curiosity and adventure, every sense of the tactile and febrile – for it is immoral to feel such sudden excitement about a new research partnership that one agrees to meet one’s adult student in the dead of night – at 9.30 pm. We believe that women students across university campuses in India are fighting to extend their hostel curfews to at least such hours; never for intellectual exchanges then, one presumes?

If one belongs to the progressive left, and is invested in the force of serious emotion in one’s life and the lives of those one “believes” in, we may also think rigorously again about Raymond Williams’ notion of “structures of feeling” (1977: 128-135). Williams was particularly focused on the mediation of emotion without disconnecting from the deep-rooted sense of loss and suffering at moments of transformation. He is that rare Marxist who did actually think about the tragic elements of revolutionary politics, and yet acknowledged that feeling is articulated through tropes and rhetorical techniques. He did not detach the embodiments of feeling from ideology critique, nor did he suspend the tremendous utopian dreams of transformative politics for any sorry idea of victimhood. If one attempts to take emotion seriously, the secret, as some great Marxist thinkers have shown, is to restrain oneself from indulging in any frenzy arising out of pathos. Georges Sorel used the force of the coming together of a people to chart a map for the myth of the general strike, but it was not a retributive frenzy. Brian Massumi and others reprised forms and zones of pure intensity, distanced from all sentimentality. Now, it appears, we have abandoned the rigours of structural analysis – even while, ironically enough, a ‘structural feminism’ is being invoked – and have turned affect into a most juvenile fetish. Students and teachers of literature are using the word “catharsis”, for example, in an astoundingly effortless manner that belies all their training in terminological distinctions. This is sometimes naïve, but often calculated. If progressives have decided to abandon all values of criticality and deliberation for sentimental “belief”, they need to discard the subterfuge of thought altogether.

Susan Watkins’ remarkable essay, “Which Feminisms?” in New Left Review (Jan-Feb, 2018), puts #MeToo in perspective in the context of contemporary progressive feminist movements. She asks: “What aspects of the old feminisms should be challenged, and on what grounds? To what extent do the new feminisms replicate or break with them?” She does an exacting study, attempting to “define the paradigms that have governed feminist practice up till now and to think through their adequacy for mid-21st century conditions.”

Watkins tracks how the global variety differed in several respects from US-exported feminisms. First, there was no international equivalent to the court-backed civil-rights machinery of Title VII and Title IX. Second, the neoliberal input has been much stronger: global-feminist programmes are often add-ons to capital-driven development policies – land titling, slum clearance, labour-force restructuring, credit expansion. Watkins travels in her essay from continent to continent in a painstaking mapping of the distinct ways in which women’s movements shaped themselves in response to specific social, cultural and political developments through the last thirty or forty decades. Against this canvas of comparative feminisms geopolitically assessed, Watkins frames an essential question: “How effectively can sexual harassment be tackled if intersecting insecurities are not addressed?” (2018)

She reminds us of what Catherine MacKinnon’s “guerilla legalism” had brought to a US-led feminism, altering it forever: “Theoretically, MacKinnon’s starting point—as work is to Marxism, so sex is to feminism—involved a double error. For Marx, the determinant practice was not ‘work’ but the mode of producing what’s needed for daily subsistence—food, fuel, clothing, shelter—of which labour is one critical factor, along with nature, and the accumulated gains of technology, capital, language… A strength of Marxism as a social theory is its ability to hold positives and negatives, creation and destruction, within a single frame. If a feminist “epic theory” is required, it will need to do the same—to encompass pleasures as well as dangers; the risky attractions of otherness, the manifold problems of love.” (2018) It does not need to be reiterated, then, what the current return to the feminism of MacKinnon implies: whatever else it might claim for a new feminism of the 21st century, it can hardly be that of a leftist orientation.

It is interesting indeed that a feminist initiative that at first had focused on women alone, as a strategy for finding strength in solidarity in the face of serious sexual abuse, morphed into a vicious retributive movement even as it gained some power and prestige. “Thematically, however, this was the narrowest of the movements… Nor was there any attempt to develop a broader social agenda around violence, as in Argentina and Italy, or alternative cultural projects, as in Brazil.” Watkins is particularly scathing about the new practice of trial by social media, “which abandoned any notion of fair hearing”, and how in “the most grotesque cases… zealots set about extirpating works from the canon.” Calling out a movement that does not demand equal justice for accuser and accused, Watkins lays out what the need of the hour is: “an effective feminist politics on harassment needs to recognize its differentiated landscape, varying horizontally, along the course of the life cycle, and vertically, in different social, class and racial situations… But so far, the movement around #MeToo has been the most conservative of the new crop.”


Empathy is a Deficient, Sentimental, Moral Category

It is not surprising that “the most conservative”, McKinnon-inspired contemporary feminist movement should find feminist resonances from different locations of the globe. V Geetha, along with Mary John and others, is one among many Indian feminists who has supported ‘the list’ of accused men in Indian academia (although she did deliver a memorial lecture in honour of the only dead man on the list, without explanation). V Geetha’s article, “Why I Signed the Letter Asking for Action on the Complaint against Sadanand Menon” (2018), puts on display a model liberal conservative position occupied by a well-known feminist activist and academic, whose substantial contribution to the field (which she details in the article) is undisputed, but who now draws upon that to make dangerous inferences about sexual behaviour among adults. The greatest wrong done here to informed feminism is a deliberate decision not to distinguish between grades of human interaction, eventually leading to a subjective belief emptied of all criticality.

Geetha pronounces, “We researched, produced reports on caste and class violence, communal hatred, and sexual hurt, and spoke out against individuals, groups and institutions complicit in these acts – inevitably ‘naming and shaming’ those who appeared set in impunity.” (2018) Here, “violence”, “hatred” and “hurt”, three completely different registers, are equated as if they are identical sentiments. The last is where #MeToo comes to rest: everyone has the right to be ‘hurt’ and then call it violence. This conflation is grossly misleading, and pushes feminism back by decades. Geetha tries to close the binary between due process and public vigilantism: “For many of us, the question was not one of choosing between ‘due process’ and public action, but of understanding the constraints of procedure, and how we could encourage ACJ—and with it, ourselves—to imaginatively and with empathy rework it.” (2018)

But empathy is a deficient, sentimental, moral category when used for interrogative thinking. At best, empathy is connected to a willful, lachrymose obfuscation of justice that ought to be objective, material and rigorous; at worst, it allows the personal-emotional-moral to enter the social without any mediation. Similarly, the term “ethical” cannot be bandied about if one wants clarity and precision, viz., “expand the horizon of its ethical charge”. The word “ethics”, if used without any philosophical rigour, criticality and materiality, only works to moralize a society. If one is to think sharply about law and nature together at workplaces, one must allow consenting adults to make their own rules. An entrenched moralism is exposed with phrases like “adventurous individuals”: here is a deep anxiety about those who lead difficult and complex intimate lives, apart from a sheer disdain for proof or conviction. Is this what Swacch Bharat is to increasingly look like at home, cheered on, ironically, by avowedly left-thinking opponents of a rabid rightwing government?

What is most astonishing in Geetha’s account is her obsession with mentorship – an obsolete term unless one subscribes to a guru-shishya model of higher education. In a post-Rancière world, in which The Ignorant Schoolmaster has fired our dream of democratic classrooms, no one is any longer a ‘mentor’. So also we learn from Brazilian educator Paolo Freire, best known for his philosophy of critical pedagogy, that one must be humble as a teacher to really learn. After such knowledge, how can we insult the complexity of the human being whom Geetha refers to as the ‘mentee’, who must remain in obeisance to her mentor, the wise genius? In free and rigorous teaching-learning relationships the power of exchange is between two a priori equal beings, both drawing from each other or in collectivities. Geetha writes: “All too often, lines of civility and decorum that ought to hold a mentor-student relationship in place are blurred” (2018).

In obverse, Freire, Rancière and Agamben bring the idea of adventure to teaching and learning, where the basis is equality. No teacher who is a believer in the “decorum” of a hierarchized relationship can take part in this adventure. Freire says of teaching: “I am humble because I am incomplete… Then if I understand this process, I am open, absolutely open, every time to be taught by the students. Sometimes we are mistaken in our understanding of reality. We are even mistaken in our knowing of the knowledge. I don’t know if it’s good English, but sometimes we are mistaken in the process of reknowing.” (1990:194) Like Rancière’s “ignorant schoolmaster”, Jacotot, we must believe not in instruction but in emancipation: “Whoever teaches without emancipating stultifies.” (1991:18)


Hedonist Teachers (who) Teach to Transgress

Freire and Rancière’s overlapping ideas on a democratic classroom find remarkable echoes in Upendra’s Baxi’s essay, “Teaching as Provocation”: “…teaching requires a profound inversion of roles: the teacher has to be taught and the taught in turn teaches something to the teacher…” (1990:152). Baxi spends the greater part of his rumination distinguishing between the ‘rationalist’ and the ‘hedonist’ teacher, claiming in no uncertain terms his affinity with the latter. Baxi is a radical thinker about education, across decades, disciplines and countries: “For the “hedonist”, students are more than units of cognition; they are rather full, whole individuals with life histories and futures. The teacher is no guru possessed of the charisma of knowledge; but an equally bewildered companion and friend. The classroom is the site of intense engagement, essentially therapeutic for both the teacher and the taught” (1990:156). He goes on: “The hedonist regards extra and co-curricular activities as integral aspects of teaching and learning: and for some amongst them, extended coffee table conversations on life, letters and politics are as important as classroom teaching. For the rationalist, the latter is forbidden almost totally; the former is tolerated as a necessary evil” (1990:156). One recalls here Corey Robin’s decimation of Jane Gallop’s lack of ethics for meeting students outside class; of V. Geetha’s plea for “decorum”. Today’s liberal conservative mentors and mentees are clearly in counter-revolution against an earlier radical generation of thinkers about education.

bell hooks, also in the spirit of Freire, Rancière and Agamben, speaks in Teaching to Transgress of taking the ‘erotic’ into the space of the classroom through a critique of a mind/body dualism. One of the reasons, hooks identifies, that teachers have been historically encouraged to throw passion, desire, and erotic drives out is because education is seen as the domain of the “mind,” where the “body” has no function. In her thesis, hooks seeks to undo this repressive apparatus by pointing out the appeal of education to the senses, its impact on the body alongside cerebral and intellectual changes: “when eros is present in the classroom setting, then love is bound to flourish” (1994:198). hooks maintains that the only way to undo or overturn the binary of mind and body is through a sustained feminist critique of education and pedagogical practice, for feminism has tried to blur the easy categorical differences between the “public” and the “private” since the second wave. hook’s propositions stand against the new feminist dispensation, the flag bearers of #MeToo and “the list”, who invoke Black feminists time and again, but ignore the political and pedagogic concerns that hooks raises in arguing that one cannot segregate education from the erotic drive.

There has not been enough discussion on the exclusionary profile of #MeToo, primarily a white women’s movement in the West: it does not include queer communities in the main, does not consider sex workers as capable of being traumatised by untoward sexual conduct, and does not traverse the lower echelons of caste, class and labour identities. On the race question, Ashwini Tambe writes recently in Feminist Review, “…We know the history of how black men have been lynched based on unfounded allegations that they sexually violated white women. We know how many black men are unjustly incarcerated. The dynamics of #MeToo, in which due process has been reversed—with accusers’ words taken more seriously than those of the accused—is a familiar problem in black communities. Maybe some black women want no part of this dynamic” (2018: 200).

This disquiet possibly explains the silence of sex workers, while sections of the queer community have noted the strangeness of #MeToo’s fixed heteronormativity. #MeToo supporters among teachers and students cannot be proponents of pedagogical practices espoused so passionately by Freire, Rancière, Baxi, hooks, signaled by democracy, freedom, risk and the erotic. Sharmila Rege, in her essay, “Education as Trutiya Ratna: Towards Phule-Ambedkarite Feminist Pedagogical Practice”, outlines a method of teaching that attempts to “integrate the principles of prajna (critical understanding) with karuna (empathetic love) and samata (equality)”, and says, “this democratization of method of knowledge marks the difference of Phule-Ambedkarite perspectives from methods based on binaries of reason/emotion, public/private, assumption of neutral objectivity/celebration of experience that inform much of our teaching and research…” (2010:93). When she talks of “karuna” or empathetic love, she links it with critical and democratic practices in a political pedagogy for freedom, and never with trauma and victimhood.

Rege returns to questions of authority and the body through a Dalit lens of derision and powerlessness, and goes on: “African American feminists have underlined the ways in which the body is erased in the process of learning. Entering the classroom is as if about giving up to the mind and making the body absent. It is assumed that denial of passion and Eros as if is a precondition for learning to take place. They remind us that Eros is the moving force that propels life from a state of potentiality to actuality and therefore central to the energy of the classroom” (2010:95-6).[iv] There can be little doubt that the pedagogical praxis that Rege is offering here as a radical alternative is far removed from the liberal conservative instinct to consolidate divisions between body and mind. V Geetha has written: “…when confronted with charismatic and bright men who are accused of sexual misconduct, many consider the minds of these men to be of greater value than the bodies of those women… Eager for knowledge and excited by a life of ‘the mind,’ many of us are starry-eyed about those possessed with a formidable intellect. When such a mentor is also open and friendly, the charismatic teacher becomes a friend” (2018). It is difficult to imagine a more regressive feminism than one that pits male intellect against female body (and) desire in the university.


The Erotic University and the Question of Power

“There are perhaps no places more vulnerable to the intertwining of work and romance than colleges and universities. Indeed, a defining characteristic of university life is the entanglement of stimulating ideas and charismatic people,” write Marta Figlerowicz and Ayesha Ramachandran in “The Erotics of Mentorship” (2018). Drawing upon multiple examples of philandering and sexual camaraderie between mentors and mentees, professors and students – starting from Alcibiades and Socrates, Abelard and Heloise, to Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, Martin Heidegger and Hannah Arendt – Figlerowicz and Ramachandran demonstrate the continuing pervasiveness of desire in education through the ages. It is this erotic force of pedagogy that renders education seductive. 

“Agathon, who happened to be lying on his own on the bottom couch, said, ‘Come and lie down beside me, Socrates, so that, by contact with you, I can share the piece of wisdom that came to you in the porch…’” – Plato, The Symposium (1999:7)

In this, a foundational text not only of love and desire but also of western philosophy, Plato proposes the model of an erotic-educational relationship that constitutes the basis of what we understand as ‘platonic love’. Refuting the critical and colloquial shorthand with which the phrase is evoked, sexual gratification is at the heart of the platonic conception of love, so long as it is transacted for knowledge, education and wisdom. Plato, whose philosophical deliberations always circled the question of what should be the nature of an ideal republic, locates eros at the heart of epistemic and pedagogic practices. Education was only possible in the proximity of desire, through an erotics of mentorship between the philosopher-teacher-lover and the student-beloved.

In other words, one need not receive the machinations of “power” either in an un-nuanced, oppressive way as hailed by supporters of “the list” and #MeToo feminists, or always in the manner in which theorists like Rancière conceptualize it, non-hierarchizing the classroom. Plato’s text reveals, much like Alice Dreger’s incisive pronouncement that “power is hot”, that the field of desire or sexuality is never devoid of power. Foucault had tried to demonstrate that power cannot be absolutely dissolved, its centre can only be shifted; power operates rhizomatically and hence, there is nothing morally “good” or “bad” about it (1998: 92-93). Socrates’ relationship with his pupils bears testimony to this. Our arguments approach “power” in this paper from these twin locations – one that strives to undo and overturn it, and the other that reckons with the erotics of its disequilibrium.

Interestingly, local critiques of the erotic-educational model have revisited native grounds, discrediting the notion that this pedagogic practice was a corrupting western import. Pandey Bechan Sharma’s collection of short stories, Chocolate, published in 1927 under the pen-name of ‘Ugra’, captures this titillating phenomenon of young, slender, beautiful boys enamoured of wiser, older men, who on many occasions happen to be their teachers. In the opening story of the collection, Manohar Chandra writes a cautionary letter to the narrator:

There are all kinds of places in this country where boys can get ruined. Most of the efforts to mislead boys occur at boarding schools, Brahmacharya Ashrams, Company Gardens, fairs and festivals. One often hears of teachers being responsible for boys’ ruin… Students say their beautiful friends are just friends or are relatives. But it is impossible to describe how they behave with these friends and relatives. (2006:40)

The narrator, while he accuses modern education – by which he means colonial, English language education – of having a perverting influence on young minds, simultaneously slams ‘Brahmacharya Ashrams’. It is indeed true that education in India, even before the advent of colonial pedagogy, flourished and prospered in the propinquity of desire; India has never shied away from exhibiting its histories of sexual intimacies between teachers and pupils. Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s amorous liaison with his disciple Nityananda (Nitai), or Ramakrishna’s erotic dalliances with his pupils such as Vivekananda, Hari Prasanna Chatterjee and Rakhal bear testimony to the prevalence of eroto-pedagogic practices (Vanita 2008).  Consider the following lines by the great Sufi mystic, Amir Khusrau, written for his spiritual master and mentor, Nizamuddin Auliya – where, in his relentless love for his teacher, he fantasizes himself as his bride:

Beholding your appearance, Oh Nijaam
I offer myself in sacrifice.
…This spring, please dye my scarf for me,
Oh Nijaam, protect my honour.
…Qutab and Farid have come in the wedding procession,
And Khusrau is the loving bride, Oh Nijaam.

This tradition has leaked into the popular present. Two recent popular Bollywood romantic comedies – Desi Boyz (2011), directed by Rohit Dhawan, and Main Hoon Na (2004) directed by Farah Khan – brought sex to the center of epistemic and pedagogic practices, hinting at the inscription of ‘the erotic’ in education, which in the age of trauma and moral panic has almost already disappeared.


A Dystopia of the Voided Erotic

The Bible.  The poetry of Sappho. The Dubliners by James Joyce. Ulysses by James Joyce. The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio. Vyasa’s Mahabharata. Dracula, by Bram Stoker. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs. Golpitha by Namdeo Dhasal. The Canterbury Tales by William Chaucer. Adwa Shesh Rajani by Shyamal Gangopadhyay. Luis Buñuel’s Belle du Jour. Hungryalist poetry from Bengal. Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Ninetto poems, and his film Salo. The love poetry of Vidyapati. Georges Bataille’s Story of the Eye. In the Mood for Love by Wong Kar-Wai. Thanda Gosht by Saadat Hasan Manto. JM Coetzee’s Disgrace. Neeraj Ghaywan’s Masaan. The poetry of John Donne. Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Shakespeare’s plays. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. Charles Baudelaire’s Flowers of Evil. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë. Deepa Mehta’s Fire. Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’. Bibar by Samaresh Basu. The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek. Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Colour. ‘Lihaaf’ by Ismat Chughtai. Sons and Lovers by DH Lawrence. The Fox by DH Lawrence. Delta of Venus by Anaïs Nin. Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur. One Part Woman by Perumal Murugan. David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. Srikrishna Kirtana by Chandidas. Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy. Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Sexing the Cherry by Jeanette Winterson. Aga Shahid Ali’s poetry. Sylvia Plath’s poetry. H.D.’s poetry. The Beats. The Surrealists. Freud’s Dora

What would a humanities classroom without any or all of these texts of literature and cinema – and infinite others – look like? This is a random, miniature catalogue of what would be expunged from the university if the moral panic around sexuality, created and fanned by left liberal conservatives and searing across a select urban academia today, has its way. #MeToo’s “lists” made collateral damage of some men, and victims of all women, in a hysterical heterosexual meltdown, mostly invisibilizing other genders and sexualities. Its aftermath in academia may continue to be fired again not by rightwing extremists, but by the same liberal left, hell-bent on founding a new gender radicalism for the twenty-first century. If the flames catch for a longer run, they will create a humanities woefully, widely stained by another collateral damage, of new generations deprived of learning about life in its full-throatedness. Instead of Molly Bloom’s blossoming affirmative about the complex intensity of life and love which we invoked early on, ending on an orgasmic cresecendo – “and yes I said yes I will Yes” – there will be a terrible ebbing of energy and breath. For there will be a voiding of vistas of knowledge that come with the experience of the erotic classroom, threaded through thinking, conversation, writing, combat and creativity about a plethora of human intimacies, without the intrusion of a moral coding and censorship about content and consent. The remains of the day will no longer even rise to tragedy, then, as when a grand old King Lear had pleaded, anticipating an end –

“No, no, no, no! Come, let’s away to prison.
We two alone will sing like birds i’ th’ cage.”

It will merely be a university – and a universe – leached of its promise of an electric learning and living, an enervating dystopia of its own creation.

[i] Judith Butler, Undoing Gender, 2004.

[ii] Italics ours.

[iii] Italics ours.

[iv] Italics ours.


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Brinda Bose teaches English Literature at Jawaharlal Nehru University. Her book, The Audacity of Pleasure: Sexualities, Literature and Cinema in India, was published by Three Essays Collective in early 2018.

Rahul Sen completed his M.Phil. from the Department of English at Delhi University. He is currently a Critical Writing Preceptor at Ashoka University.


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4 Responses to “Liberal Vertigo, Eros, and the University”

  1. Piyali M

    Wonderful work, Brinda and Rahul. Wonderful. This is just the critique we need of the frenzy surrounding Me Too. While the narratives and testimonials of women who have been sexually or otherwise harassed, we must fight, in the current neoliberal climate, to preserve the university as a space for erotic expression. Both as learners and teachers, we ow a duty to each other to respect boundaries even while pushing against them. The ambivalences of such boundaries enable and actualize our work, our lives — what will be our education if it has not been formed by a visceral engagement in the intellectual? Thank you for this erudite and moving impassioned essay in defence of the eros of university life. We hold our rights as dearly as our duties to each other.

    • brinda

      thank you so much – for thinking with this, and taking the time to write.
      yes, the ambivalences of such boundaries: you put it well. it sometimes seems that we are losing the ability to admit of ambivalences altogether now…

  2. Abhishek Batra (@abhishekbatra)

    I really like apples, they are red. I like how they are long, mushy and yellow. The thing I don’t like about them is that sometimes they are really acidic, but I still like the tangy taste in moderation and their orange colour. In conclusion, I’m undecided on this thing called fruit, which clearly only comes in one variety.


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