Articles/Jean-Luc Nancy/Clear Confusion

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'Clear Confusion' by Jean-Luc Nancy


What an instructive story! We have two people flirting (all references to gender, ever doubtful and always subject to change, have been erased). Two adults in full possession of their rights and their consciences. One is the other's professor, which means that the other is a student. They flirt, which is to say that they flatter each other, use pet names in conversation and in emails, cuddle a little. In terms of both sex and sentiment, it goes no further than that.

The student graduates and starts looking for work. After two years of looking, no job has yet appeared (university positions in literature being pretty rare in these business-oriented times). So, the student comes to feel that the flirt-partner must be sabotaging things, and decides to formally accuse the professor first of seduction and second of thwarting the job search (meanwhile, fortunately, the student has found two temporary positions).

A Title IX process is started. The accused is found guilty of sexual harassment in the form of exaggerated language (language that, however, is never judged likely to have psychologically harmed the plaintiff, while supposed supporting medical documentation is found "of questionable reliability"). The accused is suspended from all professional duties for one year. And all of this is supposed to remain between the two parties and the university, which handled the process. But the plaintiff feels wronged by this verdict, considering it too light, and so contacts the press, giving them only one side of the story, and threatens the university with a lawsuit (demanding millions, the university said).

Meanwhile, a considerable number of colleagues and friends of the accused wrote a public letter expressing their sense that the extent and intensity of the judicial process (which took several months to arrive at rather ambiguous results) was completely out of proportion to the benign nature of the facts. They also made reference to the accused's considerable international reputation—not as an excuse but as testimony to a record of estimable social and professional conduct for over 30 years. They also specifically said that they would have been equally shocked to see anyone else treated in this way (curiously, this detail was left out of a later version of the letter that was made public).

It was at this point that things got really complicated—as if they weren't already complicated enough. It's time to state directly that the accused is a woman and the plaintiff a man—both homosexuals (distinctions no doubt subject to elaboration, and a point that needs to be clarified). People so readily jump to conclusions: when a woman is accused, feminists—both women and men—defend her. When a man is, he is roundly condemned—by both women and men. The press gets fired up on both sides of the Atlantic (just for starters). The accused denied the plaintiff's allegations—which made an absurdity of the ten months of judicial process and confidentiality. Conclusions: 1) with no other proof than scenes without witnesses and soulful declarations, a verdict was passed. 2) with no other proof than the presence of feminists among the signatories (the others were forgotten, I among them), the verdict of popular opinion weighed against the women engaged in the #MeToo movement.

Everyone is leaping to judgement when it's a matter of one person's word against another's, one opinion against another. It has created an overwhelming confusion between the subjective and the objective, as well as between the personal and the institutional, between the lived and the judicial, impression and information, prejudice and judgement.

But this confusion has also sent a shiver of satisfaction through various ranks and networks: what a gorgeous slaughter! Feminists tripping themselves up, the academic corporation sounding a call to arms, and above all, above all, flirtation put under high surveillance. Let's all defend ourselves against everyone else, and sentimentality against itself. Defend sensitive beings against even the lightest seductions. From a wink to rape, as if it were a foregone conclusion—as if all professors are harassers and all students, serfs.

Thus, from confusion, clarity is born: how good it is to have a clear vision of the world, well-ordered and structured upon exact divisions and defined attributions, to be able to tell instantly and unquestionably the good from the bad and vice-versa, to be able to correct the tiniest infraction, to be absolutely serious and infinitely vigilant. How good one feels in this precise world in which everything and everyone is in the proper place assigned to the proper role!

So, who says this is a complicated world?


Additional note: over the past several years, there's been a noticeable change in the codes of politeness, courtesy, and friendliness. "Love" has replaced "Sincerely," and "Xox!" has replaced "Warm wishes." And when one sends hugs and kisses, it's always big hugs and many kisses. Though we may want to enrich these codes with a few refinements, those expressing amiability can become a bit effusive. It's as if expressions of affection seem half-hearted if they aren't as ardent as possible. Where can it possibly end? And it's confusional, if you'll allow me the phrase. And this is to say nothing of humorous or deliberately parodic uses of hyperbolic sentiment! For fear of not being able to feel anything, we endlessly endeavor to feel ever more intensely. But being serious and clear-sighted demands elaborately refined language—does it not, my very dear sisters and very dear brothers?

Second additional note: This case has had some unexpected developments. For instance, it's been suggested that the concept of sexual harassment needs to be rethought in order to include the possibility of its being non-sexual through the exercise of emotional pressure linked to power, which makes sense as long as the basis of the pressure—the relative strength of one party and the relative weakness of the other—are well and clearly established. The same would pertain if one were considering such pressures on an elderly person or someone psychologically challenged. The relationship of professor and student is not sufficient in itself—and yet that's what's been suggested . . . but it's not a matter of suggesting it, but of proving it.

Third addition: In the intervening time (I wrote this text three weeks ago) I've seen that "deconstruction" is itself being accused in the person of Avital Ronell and that Avital is being accused as a supposed "deconstructionist." Those backing this argument reveal that they know nothing of what the word "deconstruction" means in philosophy, are unaware that Derrida always rejected the idea of "a deconstructionism," and—and above all—are ignorant of the considerable differences that exist among works written by Avital, Derrida, and of a number of other thinkers—themselves extremely diverse—that tries to continue and deepen what Kant, Nietzsche, Husserl, and Heidegger undertook following what Kant labeled the "critique of the metaphysical." Ignorance always flourishes alongside verdicts of opinion.

Originally published on 3. september 2018 at