Why I’ll Miss Jean Bethke Elshtain

A short version of a tribute to Jean Bethke Elshtain, who died last Sunday, from Christine Sylvester, Professor of Political Science at the University of Connecticut.


Jean Bethke Elshtain

She was embraced by feminists for her books on Women and War and Public Man/Private Woman, and then ostracised by the sisterhood for her disapproval of gay marriage and approval of “just” wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. She would become anathema to peace researchers and sandpaper to scholars of critical IR. Those who liked her early writings in a secular vein would be disappointed when she began to argue from a base in religious philosophies. Jean Bethke Elshtain encapsulated the best hopes of feminists to effect change in core topics of “men’s studies” –International Relations and Religious Studies –and ended up instead on the wrong side of several issues. That’s clear. So let’s ignore her recent death, shall we? Possibly celebrate her end?

Not me. I met Jean at a series of feminist IR conferences held between 1989 and 1993 in the USA, and then shared many a panel with her at the International Studies Association for a few years. Without equivocation, had I not met Jean and found favour in her eyes, I wouldn’t have produced publishable work in my own voice. Jean pulled me aside at one conference, sat me down, and told me to maintain and further develop what she called my “maverick tendencies.” The good Coloradan that she was warned against following the herd as it raced along toward…possibly nothing. My graduate school mentors had been excellent and very encouraging, especially Karen Mingst. I learned much from them, but also resisted some of their good advice once I was out on my own, stubbornly insisting on writing about Zimbabwe and feminist IR –two very different specialisations, both approached in slightly off-centre ways. To Jean, that was the way to go. Permission granted. Years later, in 2001, when she was on an ISA panel discussing my work, along with Cynthia Enloe, Steve Smith, and Dipesh Chakrabarty, she gave me a hard time over what she called my “postmodern avoidances;” by then, Jean was a solid believer in truth. She gave an audience member an even harder time, though, for wilfully misrepresenting my arguments.

Jean the scholar I admired very much. Jean the person behind the scholar astounded me. Her story, of course, appears in an early chapter in Women and War (1987), a book that came out decades before IR recent “new” interest in auto-ethnography. Jean depicts herself as a smart-ass tomboy, a shoot-em-up leader of the cavalry of kids, clearly smarter than everyone around her. But she was decidedly in the pack of youngsters who contracted polio before the vaccine, and who had to suffer the neanderthal treatments available at the time (my cousin was similarly afflicted and spent months in a hideous Iron Lung.) Thereafter, Jean walked with a noticeable limp. I remember the two of us racing like maniacs down the streets of the University of Southern California to get to where we were to speak. That pronounced limp on a shortened leg could not be ignored: I suggested we go slower. She wouldn’t have it. “I can do this,” she said, “not happily or easily, but I can do it.”

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What We Talked About At ISA: The Monstrous Masculine: War Rape, Race/Gender, and the Figure of the Rapacious African Warrior

If there is something in these utterances more than youthful inexperience, more than a lack of factual knowledge, what is it? Quite simply it is the desire – one might indeed say the need – in Western psychology to set Africa up as a foil to Europe, a place of negations at once remote and vaguely familiar in comparison with which Europe’s own state of spiritual grace will be manifest.

Chinua Achebe, ‘An Image of Africa’ (1978)

Sometimes it seems that we’re merely Constructions made out of yarn, paper & wood with threads rising from our toes and fingertips. We pretend to talk and act as though we were alive but actually we don’t have any choice in the matter. Some secret power directs us.

Evan S. Connell, The Diary Of A Rapist (1966)

1. Rape, Ultra-Violence and Beethoven

When we speak of men in feminism, we might speak generally or specifically, of properties of maleness and masculinity or of things done by particular men (and usually some combination of the two). What is at stake is the distinction between masculinity as a set of internal properties and as a set of relational, and hence contingent, ones. Although this can be taken as denying any substance at all to that category ‘man’, it is perhaps just as well to say that we all build our own subdivided orders of maleness – from men we know, knew, or think we are; from our salient models of true and false and ambiguous masculinity; from the postures and poses we take as appropriate towards them; and from the frames we adopt for dealing with variety, with all the space for the exemplar, the exception, the masquerade and the average that they bring.

The monstrous masculine is one such model, or rather a set of models united by family resemblance. An object of horror, the monstrous masculine is a repository for tropes that identify the hideous excesses and obscene pleasures of maleness. Channelling Barbara Creed (and some Sjoberg and Gentry), it is a set of tropes and themes in our imaginaries of social action, frequently evoking, among others, ideas of a limitless and aggressive sexuality, a cold and calculating self-regard and/or a submerged, if frequently actualised, hatred of women and Woman that borders on the instinctual. In accounts of wartime sexual violence, this figure of the rapacious warrior (usually African) comes to be represented in terms of the calculating soldier-strategist (who chooses rape as a hyper-efficient means to an accumulatory end); the angry soldier-rapist (expressing a deep desire and sexuality); or the habitual soldier-ritualist (enacting the memes and symbolic imperatives of a community, culture or even race).

Think of the figure of the unreason-laced psychopath rapist, whether in the version Joanna Bourke examines as the ‘rapacious degenerate’ or that which Susan Brownmiller addresses as the ‘police-blotter rapist’: “[t]he typical American perpetrator of forcible rape…little more than an aggressive, hostile youth who chooses to do violence to women”. Such protagonists are common in popular representations of rape. In A Clockwork Orange, Alex and his droogs prowl the streets and lanes of town and country, opportunistically submitting the unlucky to attacks driven by a relentless juvenile machismo. And in the scandalous Irréversible, rape is also the product of a subterranean drive. ‘Le Tenia’ does not even search his victim for money as an afterthought – his priorities are only to enact his spontaneous lust and be called ‘daddy’ as he does so.

The monstrous masculine unites conceptions and intimations of masculinity as pathology. This is the Real of a “terrifying dimension, as the primordial abyss which swallows everything, dissolving all identities”. Put otherwise, it embodies in its most psychoanalytic inflection the idea (following Nick Cave) that the desire to possess her is a wound.

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