Discover more from a fête worse than death
once again, on agnes callard
I’ve been so depressed by the aggressive hostility and stupidity of the various responses to this profile of Agnes Callard that appeared in the New Yorker recently that I simply cannot focus on anything else in my life until I take a moment to emote. I know it’s a fool’s errand to argue with angry people on Twitter, and that it’s even more of a fool’s errand to spend any time thinking about angry people on Twitter, instead of about anything more profitable. Nonetheless, I find myself so distressed by the carnival of idiocy that I can’t move on to the things I’m supposed to be writing and thinking about until I allow myself to explain what bothers me so much about all this. Indulge me. Or don’t, and stop reading, lol. I never promised my Substack would be anything more than a record of my private irritations. For that, as ever, you need a magazine, with editors.
Now, onto my irritations. The profile is certainly imperfect: it focuses almost exclusively on Agnes’s romantic life and contains vanishingly little discussion of her scholarly contributions, a fact that might have provoked ire and suspicion in the sort of people railing against Agnes if they didn’t already hate her too much to care if she’s misrepresented in what I regard as a slightly sexist way. But I think there’s something deeply noble and admirable about her approach to philosophy, and that it comes through in the piece at least to some extent. Granted, not all of the responses to the piece attack the bit that I find so worth defending, though many of them are little gifts of stupidity in their own right. Broadly, there are 5 sorts of comon responses, three of which are dumb and one of which drains me of my will to live.
“I hate Agnes Callard forever because she crossed the picket line when UChicago graduate students were striking, so I hate everything associated with her.” I actually think this is a fine response. It’s honest, and it doesn’t contort itself to find some implausible pretext in the article for hating her, nor is it quietly puritanical about her romantic choices. I think Agnes was wrong to cross the picket picket line, and I understand why people would be appalled by her behavior in that instance. I myself have no problem thinking both that she was deeply wrong about that, and that she’s an original thinker and a fascintingly singular person, but I understand why some people might remain offended.
“Professors should not date graduate students under any circumstances, even when they’ve taken steps to clear it with the department, etc.” This is also a reasonable, defensible response, albeit one I probably disagree with. (I could be convinced of its truth, maybe.)
“What Agnes saying isn’t new/she isn’t engaging with the specific academic literature or intellectual tradition that I engage with in my own work, and which I think is the only intellectual tradition anyone should ever draw on!” The epistemic hubris of this sort of response is staggering. I think it’s actually fine—I’ll go out on a limb and say “good”—for different people to take different intelletual approaches to important questions. Is it good that people read and write about Bourdieu? Absolutely, but I’m also glad that some people can write about the Third Critique instead, and that I’m one of them. I would not choose to expunge the Bourdieu-readers from the academy and fill it with people who only talk about the thinkers I prefer to read, but some of them would likely not extend the same charity to me. Indeed, it often seems that they see no value in intellectual diversity of any kind. In some sense, I get that. We’ve all chosen the disciplines we have because we prefer them for some reason, and one reason might be that we think they bring us closer to the Truth. But here my sympathy dries up, because I think it’s clear that the right view is really that: there is no single “truth” about a question like love or beauty, at least not one that humans can access, and accordingly, our understanding can only be enhanced when there’s space for people to argue about the topic du jour from different perspectives. Kant has stuff to offer, and Bourdieu has stuff to offer, and I’m glad I get to read both. It’s also more fun and interesting when not everyone around you is operating from within the exact same framework as you are. And finally, my very controversial opinion is that the point of a lot of humanistic inquiry isn’t really to seek the Eternal Truth, but to sustain interesting conversations, which is not possible if one sort of voice is droning over all the others. People who offer this sort of response to Agnes act as if she has ignored sociology or history because she simply is unaware that it exists. What doesn’t occur to them is that she may have engaged with it and found it wanting, or engaged with it and decided that she’d rather confront the problem from within a different intellectual tradition. In my own case, I can say: I’ve read Bourdieu, and it was fun, and now I’ll go back to my own period and tradition without wishing death on the Bourdieu acolytes unless they wish it on me, in which case, why not, I hope they suffer.
It also seems clear to me that part of the point of Agne’s characterization of love is that it feels absololutely new each time it assails us: it always gives the powerful impression of abolishing all precedent. Gillian Rose says something to this effect in Love’s Work—that the glance of love is always a first glance, or something like that. Barthes says the same thing again (WHAT???? A NOT-NOVEL THOUGHT IN A BOOOOOK???? HOW DARE HE , ETC) in A Lover’s Discourse. It’s a familiar observation about the phenomenology of love, and there’s nothing wrong with having the courage to do justice to the searing sense that the world’s been reinvented.
And finally, where does Agnes say she thinks she’s the first person to fall in love or think about it? What she seems to be saying or suggesting is an entirely different thing, which is that when she falls in love, shes actually turns to philosophy to understand what’s happened to her, instead of setting philosophy aside the moment the stakes get high (more on this below). And moreover, she seems to be saying that she uses her own experience as a way into new ideas, as a reason to explore old topics in a new way. What’s new isn’t love, or thinking about love, but the specific conclusions that Agnes draws about it, prompted in part by examination of her experience and in part by simply thinking through the matter, often aided by literature or film. The piece doesn’t do a good job of demonstrating that it’s actually Agnes’s work about love that’s novel, because, again, it makes very little mention of her actual writing about love, or anything else. For instance, it glosses over Agnes’s arguments in Aspiration, which are new and insightful responses to L.A. Paul’s understanding of transformative experiences, etc. You can find great pieces about love by Agnes in Harper’s, The Point, and Liberties. Before you declare that she has nothing new to say about it on the basis of a handful of quotes in a profile, why not read her actual work about it?
“You should only leave your spouse if s/he is beating you into a bloody pulp regularly. Otherwise, you should force yourself to remain in a marriage you don’t like because that’s better for the kids. Falling out of love with your spouse is not a good reason to leave.” This is the most obviously terrible response, for reasons I think are likely clear to most of my readers, including but not limited to: historically, the idea that you should preserve your marriage at all costs has been used to trap women in marriages that are stifling or outright abusive; even wives are people with independent claims to flourishing, and being called on to destroy your entire life in the service of your kids is a bit much; yes, being miserable and spiritually empoverished matters, too, and no, physical misery isn’t the only kind that counts; anyway, it’s worse for your kids if you’re trapped in a miserable marriage, for a thousand reasons; and finally, why would you stay in a relationship grown stale when you could just… not do that? Some people think of marriage as a contractual relationship, one in which you aren’t entitled to exit unless someone violates a term ; some see it as a duty you’re obligated to perform, regardless of your sentiments; others are commitment fetishists who think there’s something noble about sticking to a commitment even when it’s serving absolutely no one. I think that all of this is stupid and senselessly self-punishing. Marriage is no more or less than a reflection of love, and when the love dissipates, God forbid, so should the marriage.
“It’s so silly and self-important to apply philosophy to your actual life in a way that connects it to human problems, lol.” This is the response that really makes me despair of our intellectual culture, and life in general. The way Agnes does philosophy—as if it actually matters—is how it can and should and must be done. If it has no real stakes for you, if it’s just an intellectual ping pong match you take up idly until 5 pm before you go home and make the real decisions, then it doesn’t have the sort of hold on you that it should. I “relate,” to use a hideous word that’s in vogue, to Agnes in this regard; I’ve often been accused of coldness because i turn to philosophical resources in discussions about important things. But my response is always: if I’m not turning to philosophy to decide what to do with my life and what I owe others, if i don’t think it actually has anything to teach me about love and pain, why would I do it? Before my husband and I eloped, we read L.A. Paul’s book about transformative choices (the one that Agnes’s book calls into question, lol), and it helped us think through the problem of what we should do. Without that book, we might not have eloped. One of the reasons I married my husband, whom I do not intend to leave anytime soon, is because he understands that when I bring philosophy to bear on our life together it’s a sign of passionate investment, not icy detachment or disrespect.
For many (obviously not all) professional academics, their fields of study are jobs and no more. This isn’t why the academic humanities are in decline—I think the dire material situation explains both why attrition rates are so high, and why the humanities are so soulessly professionalized—but it certainly is symptomatic of their decline, of the deep conviction that they can’t really help us live. In The Therapy of Desire, one of my favorite works of philosophy, Martha Nussbaum explains why she is so excited about the Hellenistic philosophers that she will go onto treat in the rest of the book, writing that she is thrilled by “the idea of a practical and compassionate philosophy-a philosophy that exists for the sake of human beings, in order to address their deepest needs, confront their most urgent perplexities, and bring them from misery to some greater measure of flourishing.” This is the sort of philosophy that Agnes does, and it is the sort that has become tragically rare.
I think the thing about Agnes that really provokes so much vitriol in people is that she exposes the shallowness of the academic game that most people are playing by offering us a glimpse of what it would be like if we didn’t think of it as a game at all. Hardened academics scoff at this as a matter of self-justification.
There is a reason that hundreds of undergraduates show up to the events Agnes hosts and not to talks about conditionals or trolleys gone off the rails, and it’s because she thinks philosophically about the blood and bile of life and does so in a vocabulary that’s recognizable to people, that’s actually addressed to humans qua humans. Not that I have any problem with more technical philosophy, nor does Agnes, but she breathes life into it by never forgetting to emphasize its connection to problems that we care about. So much academic philosophy, and if I may be forgiven for straying from my native territory, so much work in the academic humanities is concerned with pseduoproblems—problems entirely generated by the blinkered way academics have framed problems, and not by life itself. But Agnes doesn’t do that sort of work, which alarms teh people who do.
If we can’t turn to philosophy to understand our own lives, and if we can’t take our own lives or loves seriously, what can we take seriously? If we can’t philosophize about something as urgent and intimate as falling in love, what can we philosophize about? Why is it self-important to interrogate your life philosophically and to actually hold your behavior to the standards you defend in your writing and thinking? (For that matter, why isn’t it self-important to write ethnographies of the self or histories of the self, lmao?) Of course, we should have a sense of humor about the whole comedy of human affaris (not that historians or ethnographers or whatevers of love are any likelier to be able to laugh about its excesses than philosophers), but a sense of humor and a sense of seriousness are not in the least mutually exclusive. Love is serious. The stuff of daily life is serious. It has as much of a claim to our intellectual attention as anything else.