Reflections on “Beauvoir and Post-Truth” (2023)

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Joonas S. Martikainen is a post-doc researcher on political phenomenology with the HARMAA workgroup at the University of Helsinki. His current research focuses on political trust and democratic solidarity as the experiential grounds of meaningful political agency. His book project “Political Poverty: Losing Faith in Democracy” addresses the ways that marginalized groups and persons can lose a meaningful experience of political freedom and agency. https://joonasmartikainen.neocities.org

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The 28th International Conference of the Simone de Beauvoir Society was held at the University of Helsinki, Finland and organized by the International Simone de Beauvoir Society, the HARMAA workgroup, and the University of Helsinki. The conference programme is available online.

© Pauliina Mäkelä. See Pauliina’s beautiful art.

The conference invited scholars from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds to rediscover the legacy of existentialism, and, in particular, that of Simone de Beauvoir, from the angle of truth, untruth and post-truth. Held over three days, the sessions showcased the variety of topics and approaches in contemporary Beauvoir scholarship, carrying the titles “Beauvoir and Postmodernism”, “True or False Selves”, “Crises, Politics and Authenticity”, “Education in a Post-Truth Era”, “Complicity and Oppression”, “Eros and Embodiment”, Questions of Fragility, Disabilities and Old Age”, “Social Media and Bad Faith”, and “Myths and Temporality”. The keynote lectures were delivered by Sara Heinämaa, Kathleen Lennon, and Tove Pettersen. The breadth of topics addressed in the conference displayed the strong interest in Beauvoir’s thought throughout a large variety of areas of scholarship.

The conference showed how Beauvoir’s concepts of ambiguity, bad faith, mystification, and facticity can be used to explore the ways that we are led to act contrary to our professed values, and often purposefully turn a blind eye to the problems in our own conduct while pointing the finger at others. As human existences we are apt to retreat from freedom to “seriousness”, to judging others according to non-situated epistemic and moral standards instead of acknowledging that we are all co-existences sharing in an ambiguous freedom. This willingness to constantly question one’s own moral certainties against the context of the ambiguities characterising situated human existence makes Beauvoir’s work especially important in our politically polarised world.

True to the theme of living in a post-truth world, the conference saw talks on such varied political topics as the phenomenology of right-wing thought, rationality and emotions in politics, the solidarity missing from partisan debates, public learning through social media, colonial post-truth in settler societies, and the feeling of authenticity offered by pseudo-science and conspiracy theories. There is a lot more to the rise of alternate political realities with their own sets of facts than people putting truth aside and preferring instead to be fed comfortable lies by demagogues. While speaking about Beauvoir’s conception of “encroachment” and the structure of human agency, Sara Heinämaa’s keynote lecture “From Facts to Facticity: Principles of Beauvoir’s Theory of Action and Violence” also underlined problems in the tendency to paint the post-truth phenomenon as another opposition between “rationality” and “irrational” emotions. All values contain emotions, and we need to already value facts and truth to make use of them in engaging with politics. In a public atmosphere of uncertainty and mistrust this process can break down. Through careful framing of the facts, even the seemingly unproblematic demand for objectivity can itself be twisted into a tool for obfuscating the interests of the powerful, a cause for more mistrust.

The conference also explored the theme of truth as related to gender and queer politics. In her keynote lecture “Is There a ‘Truth’ about Gender?” Kathleen Lennon emphatically answered the question in the negative, turning our attention instead toward the many ways that gender structures our lived experience while also presenting new possibilities for acting on our freedom with others. Even if Beauvoir’s own accounts of womanhood describes a gendered world that is structured in many ways differently from ours, her myth-busting existentialist phenomenology remains a fruitful approach to questions such as intersectionality and the multiplicity of gender. It was used to great effect in interrogating queer experiences in a world filled with gendered expectations, as well as the embodied aspects of our gendered existences.

Many talks centred on the themes of the erotic and the embodied in Beauvoir’s autobiographical works and diaries, investigating the ways she herself lived through the tensions she wrote about in her philosophical works and novels. The experience of freedom for women is always conditioned by their situation and the myths that condition our understandings of femininity. In a session on complicity and oppression it was discussed how myths about womanhood are especially present in our discussions and practices around reproduction, before and during pregnancy as well as childbirth itself. Women are made to submit under medical authority on the moment of giving birth to new life, and the same also happens to all of us at the moment of death, or letting go of that life. What is it about our industrialized neoliberal societies that drives us to minimize the presence of the body at the very thresholds of its life?

A theme that struck me as particularly important in this year’s conference was that of fragility and vulnerability. This theme was approached through talks on disability and old age. Tove Pettersen’s keynote lecture “Old Age – Facts and Myths” highlighted many still relevant aspects of Beauvoir’s account in the Coming of Age (1970), still one of the few major philosophical works on what it is like to get old. This itself might be considered a bit surprising: we all do, after all, get old, in the case we make it that far. The paucity of philosophising on the subject might well be due to the reaction that the subject matter often inspires in us: we approach old age in bad faith, as a subject of myths and denials of truth and reality. For those who are confident in their mental and physical powers, growing old is something that happen to others. Moreover, our western societies in many ways actively other the elderly. This is in spite of old age presenting us with an ineluctable truth: we are all fragile and vulnerable. Beauvoir’s work is still contemporary when calling out society on its bad faith and the mistreatment it visits on the elderly, as well as the disabled: it remains a scandal.

Beauvoir’s unflinching treatment of existential certainties still presents uncomfortable truths about our condition that we can either approach authentically or turn away from in bad faith. Her work still prods us to take a hard look at the kinds of exclusions and oppression our societies direct against so many groups. Despite everything, her work also presents a certain kind of hopeful realism: when careful interrogation reveals the ways that oppressions are historically contingent, we can also begin the work of addressing and eradicating them.



Citer ce billet
Joonas S. Martikainen (2023, 30 septembre). Reflections on “Beauvoir and Post-Truth” (2023). Chère Simone de Beauvoir. Consulté le 27 mai 2024, à l’adresse https://doi.org/10.58079/qwsj

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