As a serious philosopher, Martha Nussbaum presumably wants to be respected for her mind. After all, we are not dealing with Judith Butler or Slavoj Zizek here.
And yet, using the medium of a seemingly interminable profile in The New Yorker she exposes far more of her body than any serious philosopher or other public figure would do. We learn about how she squats down to pee in the woods, how she had a colonoscopy without anesthesia, where she has her botox injections… all of which show that she has overcome shame and disgust. To less sophisticated minds it sounds like an exercise in vanity.
At the least, she does not want you to forget that she is a woman.
Nor does The New Yorker. It describes her at one of her singing lessons:
Nussbaum wore nylon athletic shorts and a T-shirt, and carried her sheet music in a hippie-style embroidered sack. Her fingernails and toenails were polished turquoise, and her legs and arms were exquisitely toned and tan. She stood beside Black’s piano with her feet in a ski-plow pose and did scales by letting her mouth go completely loose and blowing through closed lips.
I will leave the rest to your imagination.
To be more clear, the New Yorker renders Nussbaum’s politicized and feminist explanation of who she underwent a colonoscopy without benefit of anesthesia:
Her friends were repulsed when she told them that she had been awake the entire time. “They thought it was disgusting to go through the procedure without their consciousness obliterated,” she said. She wasn’t surprised that men wanted to be sedated, but she couldn’t understand why women her age would avoid the sight of their organs. “Here are the same women who were inspired by ‘Our Bodies, Ourselves,’ ” she told me. “We said, ‘Oh, let’s not shrink from looking at our vaginas. Let’s not think, Our periods are disgusting, but let’s celebrate it as part of who we are!’ Now we get to our sixties, and we are disgusted by our bodies again, and we want to be knocked out.”
I am not sure how, in our pornified age, anyone finds much of anything disgusting. Or that there is anything anyone under the age of sixty has not seen, up close and personal. Nussbaum has tuned in to the Zeitgeist, perhaps even too well.
Evidently, she has undergone far too much therapy. At the beginning of the profile, we see her tormenting herself with guilt for working too hard. Since she could not make to her dying mother’s bedside because she was working, she feels oodles of guilt for being derelict.
Hard work, you see, is a male domain. Caring for the sick and the enfeebled is a female occupation.
The New Yorker lays out the guilt, covered with psychobabble:
She worried that her ability to work was an act of subconscious aggression, a sign that she didn’t love her mother enough. I shouldn’t be away lecturing, she thought. I shouldn’t have been a philosopher. Nussbaum sensed that her mother saw her work as cold and detached, a posture of invulnerability. “We aren’t very loving creatures, apparently, when we philosophize,” Nussbaum has written.
Nussbaum seems to be conflicted about gender. Why she needs to overshare I do not know. But she seems to want to be pertinent and relevant to today’s illiterati. She has a background in classical philosophy and has read more of it in the original than just about anyone else. And yet, she has also embraced every trendy cause that is floating through the academy, to the detriment of her philosophical work.
What then are we to make of the self-conscious shamelessness, the exposure of aspects of her life that do not interest anyone but those who are near and dear to her? I would suggest that she is not just a philosopher, but a culture warrior, someone whose mind has been so contaminated by psychoanalysis that she sees everything in terms of guilt, all the while attempting to relieve people from their sense of shame.
She does it by oversharing, just like the young people do. But she does not seem to recognize that she is simply setting a bad example. She might not be down with sexting, but the children who are being told to overcome their sense of shame will certainly indulge the habit… to their detriment.
Naturally, Nussbaum will say that shaming people is a sign of sexism and whatever. But, until the repeal human nature her advice will lead no small number of young people to get hurt, unnecessarily.
For reasons I will not attempt to explain, Nussbaum associates shame with disgust. She adds that disgust with the body, in particular, is the cause of bigotry. One need not be exceptionally well-versed in philosophy to see this as less-than-cogent.
The New Yorker sums up her position:
Nussbaum thinks that disgust is an unreasonable emotion, which should be distrusted as a basis for law; it is at the root, she argues, of opposition to gay and transgender rights. Her work includes lovely descriptions of the physical realities of being a person, of having a body “soft and porous, receptive of fluid and sticky, womanlike in its oozy sliminess.” She believes that dread of these phenomena creates a threat to civic life. “What I am calling for,” she writes, is “a society of citizens who admit that they are needy and vulnerable.”
Take a few minutes to unpack that mess.
Why is disgust unreasonable? We find excrement and urine disgusting because we do better not to get too close to them. We find corpses disgusting because they are probably carrying diseases. We do not eat food whose odor disgusts us because we have evolved to survive, not to get sick.
These are adaptive experiences; individuals who refused to respect their sense of disgust did not survive for very long. You do not have to be a philosopher to understand this.
Since we respect other people and want to be respected by them we perform certain bodily functions in private. At least, most of us do. Why expose other people to potentially harmful substances? Why allow them to see you in less-than-dignified postures?
And, all human beings in all human societies cover their genitals. It’s called having a sense of shame. They and we do it, in part because bodily functions associated with excretion are best hidden but also because the human genitalia, when exposed in public, are a distraction. That’s why they are called private parts. Human beings are identified by their face, not by the appearance of their genitalia. Shamelessness deprives people of their identities by drawing our attention away from their faces. Nothing good can come of this.
As for Nussbaum’s thought, what can we make of the absurd idea that we ought to become a society of citizens who are “needy and vulnerable?” Call it girl thought, if you will, but it constitutes some very bad advice. We could argue about whether it is worse than the advice to “lean in,” but that would take too long.
Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that a young woman hears this advice and decides, on the best ideological grounds, that she ought to go to work and act needy and vulnerable. You know what will happen: they will eat her alive. For all I know she might like the experience, but it will certainly not enhance her career prospects.
An ideologue like Nussbaum will retort that if said woman's colleagues and competitors eat her alive, that is because they are sexists and are not in touch with their feminine sides. Nussbaum is not as zealous as most feminists, but she has adopted their habit of giving out bad advice and when things go wrong, she shifts the blame… to sexist men and the patriarchy.
If a woman tries, while on the job, to teach men how to get in touch with their more needy and vulnerable sides, they will immediately marginalize her… for disrespecting them and for misunderstanding what business is really all about.
If a man shows off his needy and vulnerable side he will be laughed off the job.
In practical terms, terms that Nussbaum would surely reject, the notion of making everyone needy and vulnerable, weak and ineffectual sounds very much like what some parents and teachers are trying to do. They are creating a generation of young people that is incapable of competing in the real world.
Speaking of needy and vulnerable, of girlish enthusiasms and emotional lability, the New Yorker notes that Nussbaum, despite her strange beliefs, lives her life with an almost martial discipline and order.
Putting aside the fluff, the work does have to get done. And it does not get done by those who are affecting neediness and vulnerability.