A New (Conservative) Feminism?

Like many net-dwellers, I’m fascinated by Laura Kipnis’s ongoing struggles with campus activists / university administration at Northwestern. Is this a case, as one commenter put it, of “feminism eating itself”? Let’s discuss.

First, I will admit, I love Laura Kipnis. (If you want a youngish male to flirt with in a charmingly cerebral way, professor, hit me up!). As I see it, her brand of feminism is one of female empowerment—she views women as active agents, capable of controlling their own lives, sexual and otherwise. This vision informs her rather laissez faire attitude towards professor/student relationships (the topic which sparked the current row). As Kipnis indicates, this vision of feminism is quite different than that practiced by campus activists. These subjects are primarily concerned with female vulnerability. They highlight this perceived vulnerability and often, as the Title IX action against Kipnis indicates, use it as an offensive weapon.

The ideological disparity here is fascinating. And I can’t help but think it stems from a generational gap. Kipnis, I imagine, is a product of the era of high Theory. Following Foucault, she and her cohort view power and agency as fundamentally distributed, residing in discourses and structures, rather than autonomous subjects.¹ Within such a world, power, when exercised on the interpersonal level, can always be resisted. Kipnis illustrates this point vividly in her discussion of a young female writer who is sexually pestered by a “powerful” book editor. To Kipnis, this man is “nebbish, hard to see as threatening.” To the young author though, he is apparently terrifying, an embodiment of male privilege, even when he’s Skyping in his underwear.

So if Kipnis is postmodern what is this younger generation? I don’t know. Certainly their understanding of power seems, from a postmodern perspective, strikingly retrograde: women and students are weak, men and professors and book editors are strong, etc. Like Kipnis, I worry that their rhetoric infantilizes students (and women). Like Kipnis, I suspect helicopter parenting factors in somehow.

I must note though the skill with which these young people, via their Title IX complaint, used the institutional bureaucracy to punish a perceived enemy. If there’s eating going on, they seem be the ones doing the devouring.

1) Admittedly, I have not read any of LK’s many books (though I want to!). This understanding is based solely on her recent Chronicle pieces.

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