Gender & Ontology

Yesterday afternoon – after having read Brandy’s post, as well as Anthony’s recent post on ontology – I followed a link on Facebook to Eigenfactor’s breakdown of the gender balance in scholarly publications between the years of 1665 and 2011. The data apparently comes from JSTOR (I didn’t know that they’d stockpiled publications from the 17th century! Do they really?!) This isn’t necessarily relevant. But I decided to check out the stats in philosophy. In a broad sense, they are – not surprisingly – pretty bad: only 9.4% of the total publications are by women, as opposed to, say, 37.3% in education. But things get a little more interesting when you link to the philosophy publications page where the data breaks down into more nuanced detail. Relevant here: only 3.6% of all publications on ontological arguments are by women. By way of contrast, 19.3% of works on moral philosophy have been published by women.

While I share Anthony’s distaste for the muscular “hard core” discourse on ontology, I have to confess that I am also pretty fixated on ontological claims and issues. I will admit to being a little geeked about the fact that new strains of “speculative thought” proclaimed an interest in ontology. I don’t need ontology to be object oriented. But I’m glad to see people toying with ontology: drawing attention to the contingency or plasticity of ontological speculation. At least, this is what I’m (perhaps wishfully, or delusionally) reading into these conversations. I suppose, at the end of the day, this is what’s so disconcerting about the ontological conversations that Anthony’s talking about: they’re not contingent or plastic, in the least. They’re trump cards, they make reference to the unquestionable ground of being, to a supreme deity who is omnipotent, omnibenevolent, and omniscient. Badaboom, badabing.

But I wasn’t introduced to ontological claims through this route. The first theology I ever read was feminist theology. It was Sallie McFague who first introduced me to theology as a patriarchal problem, during my master’s program. I started to read the ancient and medieval theologians through the filter of her feminist critiques. When I realized that she was pulling resources from a Whiteheadian process thought (that was itself an ontological development of a Jamesian decoupling of the divine and the absolute) it seemed to me as though the panentheistic ontological indeterminacy she was arguing for had real roots. It was an ontological shift, with its own real history, that enabled the feminist claims she made about the nature of divinity. I took her claims seriously and assumed that there was some degree of flexibility when it comes to ontological matters. 

Later, when I began to teach an intro to philosophy course, I began to get more familiar with “The Ontological Argument” and its many fans. It was only then that the allegedly unidirectional, simple, fixed nature of ontology really hit me. There is one ontological argument. God is locked into one ontological position, creatures in another. This has always seemed rather silly to me, and I suppose I’m guilty of dismissing it with a scoff. I’ve been far more interested in things like Laurel Schneider’s argument for an ontology of divine multiplicity. Or Karen Barad’s ontological indetermination of the relation between matter and meaning. Feminist thinkers are doing interesting things with ontology and I’d like to see more of this… not less. Provided, I suppose, that there’s an accompanying understanding that ontology is relational… we affect/create our ontologies and they affect/create us. I suppose that’s a taller order than I’d like to believe? Or does the appearance of an argument on behalf of an “imperfect God” in the New York Times indicate that there is a broader, more mainstream, shift underway… away from the hard-core ontological dogmatism that’s shrouded the divine?

At any rate, all of this is really just a long-winded way of asking whether the “trouble with ontology” isn’t, in some sense, also gender-based? Of course, I realize that there are all kinds of deconstructive allergies to ontology, and Heideggerian bans on ontotheology. But isn’t part of what’s driving these also a reaction against the hegemonic, universalist ontology of the divine that’s been bolstering and spiritualizing partriachal forms of power and authority?

17 thoughts on “Gender & Ontology

  1. It’s interesting to note how defensive Laurel Schneider is in the chapter where she justifies her use of the term “ontology” in Beyond Monotheism. I also got some pushback from my committee members at CTS on my use of the term in my dissertation (now known as Politics of Redemption).

    This is probably the fault of Radical Orthodoxy to a large extent, given their tendency to use “ontology” as synomymous with “our ontology” — a slippage I tried to fight against on the first page of my book by including them in a series of theological ontologies. But then there’s also the phenomenology-inspired critique of metaphysics, etc., so that ontology is kind of being hit from both sides.

  2. …the tragic story of ontology…

    You’re right that Schneider seems ready to be attacked. Honestly, I’ve actually had people laugh at me when I’ve started to talk about ontology.

  3. I agree. What is more necessarily embodied, and thus relational, than Being? To abstract it out of the ebb and flow of eroticism & flaws (to name simply two of my favorites) is to see in its capital-B something more sturdy than it could ever be on its own, the perfect bludgeon.

  4. Can there please, please be a cultural studies of ontology session at next year’s AAR?! This is amazingly helpful… In fact, couldn’t we just have a full-blown AAR Fringe with synousias and alcohol and no soul-destroying venues…

  5. Some friends of mine have been considering a fringe $BL meeting for some time that happens to meet nearby the SBL, sort of like a salon des refusees. It would be nice to hold a joint pseudo-conference with an aAR that just happens to meet nearby the AAR.

  6. These issues of the intersection of gender, politics and metaphysics have been exercising Patrice Haynes and I, as we think about future steps for the Association for Continental Philosophy of Religion. We’ve been wondering how to make some small contribution to shaping the field, and the exclusions which often define it. We’re UK-based, which obviously means we’re less accessible for many readers of this blog, but we can draw on a few resources and networks to set up conferences and symposia. I’d welcome any suggestions or discussions: shakess _at_

  7. Beatrice, this is really helpful, thanks. I’m definitely more open to the notion of relational ontologies… I think this is something Butler actually points to in *Giving an Account of Oneself* though not using this language, of course… I am, however, afflicted with some of the “deconstructive allergies” you mention– in part because of the way ontological language is deployed, especially in many of the theological circles I’m tangentially related to, but also in part because it seems very slippery… by which I mean, it is so easy to, once one begins to talk ontology, to affirm and/or reify certain discursive regimes, so to speak. I’m open to the possibility that relational ontologies might resist such a move, but I’m not sure… (not sure if any of this makes sense, as I’m *exhausted,* but thought I would throw it out there anyways….).

  8. This may be old hat here, but I’m just starting to read Catherine Malabou’s work on gender, and she seems to helpfully suggest a way to think about “essence” without essentializing (by means of “plasticity”.) A friend of mine recently gave a paper comparing Malabou’s thought to Joan Copjec’s work on the important function of the “real” in constructions of gender, and I thought it was interesting. I’m out of my depth here, but perhaps this line of inquiry might offer a way to talk about ontology without conceding the point. I think Being is kind of an important thing to let RO just have. Like I said, though, I might be speaking nonsense.

  9. And some further thoughts, that I’d posted @ the Political Theology blog. I think they’re worth repeating here:

    What I don’t take the time to mention, in the post at AUFS, is just how much this engendering of ontology has to do with political ontology, and thus political theology. But I think the connections are probably obvious to many readers, already. Carl Schmitt’s dictum that all political concepts are secularized theological concepts seems to have become something of an academic tautology. While this has the side-effect of making theology newly (if strangely) relevant, the ontological contours of Schmitt’s own political theology don’t sit well in most contemporary stomachs (with good reason). Jeff Robbins and Clayton Crockett have both worked to contextualize political theology within democratic theory, to see if this doesn’t shift the nature or impact of theo-power. I think this work exposes the contingency and craft-ability of the ontology that undergirds political theology. I also think Vincent Lloyd’s new edited volume exposes the contingency and craft-ability of political theology’s ontological commitments by bringing it into conversation with race. I think, when we look at the recent history of feminist thought–and the ways in which it’s made fruitful use of less orthodox ontologies (such as a Whiteheadian process thought)–we have yet another testimony to the contingency of the ontological commitments that bolster political theologies. It may (or may not!) be true that secularized theological concepts shape or “create”–in strange ways–our political subjectivities and institutions. But if ontology is relational–as I believe it is–we also have the ability to shape these concepts, in return.

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