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Elon scholar: Intersubjectivity of pregnancy “inescapable”

Philosopher Ann J. Cahill explores female identity, and how pregnancies & miscarriages shape it, in an annual lecture for distinguished Elon scholars.

In the 2012 Distinguished Scholar Lecture titled “In Defense of Big Words: Intersubjectivity and Scholarship,” feminist philosopher Ann J. Cahill shared with her audience her emerging thoughts on the way miscarriage shapes identity.


The fairly common experience of miscarriage has been shrouded in silence, both in general contemporary culture and in the discipline of philosophy, and as Professor Ann J. Cahill argued Tuesday night in the 2011-12 Distinguished Scholar Lecture, exploring the philosophical relationship between a pregnant woman and fetus is “fraught with peril.”

Cahill’s April 17 remarks on her emerging line of feminist philosophical research took place in LaRose Digital Theatre as part of an annual lecture series that celebrates Elon University’s premier scholarly thinkers.

Cahill explained from the outset how her work relies on the notion of “intersubjectivity”, which veers from the traditional idea that a person’s sense of self is “individualistic.” Cahill suggests that identity is inherently tied to our relationships with others. As she explained in her lecture, how does a person know who she is, what she believes, and why she thinks the way she does unless she forms a relationship with someone else with different thoughts?

“Intersubjectivity says the relation is first and constitutes the being of the parties involved in it, and the parties involved constitute the relationship,” she said. “As humans we can not come into existence without someone caring for us. Our very being as existence is being with another. … Existence is intersubjective.”

That concept led Cahill to share with faculty colleagues and students her initial foray into feminist philosophy related to miscarriage. Almost no work exists on the matter.

To Cahill, the relationship between a future mother and fetus immediately changes the woman’s identity. This is true whether the woman feels excitement, anxiety or dread, or whether the pregnancy was intended. The intersubjective nature of identity - and therefore the immediate relationship that exists between the woman and fetus at the moment pregnancy is realized - means the woman’s identity changes regardless.

If pregnancy causes a shift in identity, then miscarriage causes yet another shift, one that can be experienced in a variety of ways, some unexpected. Many times, the shifts are hard on the woman, though Cahill points out that not all miscarriages are experienced as tragedies. There are cases when a miscarriage may be welcomed, such as situations where pregnancy and childbirth pose severe dangers to the woman or the fetus.

“If pregnancy is the inauguration of an identity project in relation to this other, and that other is suddenly absent, it’s like the step that isn’t there. It’s like being in a car,” she said. “You and the car are different, but you’re in the same place and headed in the same direction, then the car hits something and you keep going.”

“I am only a scholar to the degree that I continue to make my work vulnerable to the thoughts of others," Professor Ann Cahill said on April 17, 2012.

Despite the emotional complexity of miscarriage, Cahill said, contemporary culture only allows three kinds of emotional reactions to the event, none of which fully address the matter of identity. A woman might be expected to be as devastated by a miscarriage as she would have been by the death of a full-term baby; the woman might be encouraged to quickly “move on” and try for another pregnancy; or she might be perceived as having “been lucky” for the event.

“None of these are sophisticated or nuanced enough,” Cahill said. “A model of miscarriage (involving intersubjectivity) allows us to frame the phenomena not as an individual losing something … but rather as the cessation of a specific identity that required an other, an other that is unexpectedly absent.”

Though Cahill spent much of her time exploring identity as it relates to intersubjectivity and miscarriage, she also addressed the ideas behind other components to the title of her talk, “In Defense of Big Words: Intersubjectivity and Scholarship.” “Big words” such as intersubjectivity, she said, hold value in a time when people are expected to use simple language in their communications. But isn’t that important? Shouldn’t harder-to-pronounce, alien words help focus attention on the idea at hand?

“It’s not just the fact that they’re big that’s the problem. It’s that they’re unfamiliar. They trip up our tongues. We have to say them a few times,” she said. “They catch us up short, disorient us, and throw us into a state of confusion. This, I want to argue, is a very good thing.”

She also delved into the intersubjective nature of scholarship. No work exists on its own, she said. Researchers and performers rely on the previous scholarship of others on which to build their own research and ideas. Scholarship also requires the feedback of others to improve its quality. Perhaps most importantly, scholarship needs a community to facilitate the sharing of ideas.

After all, she said, is it scholarship if no one reads or uses your research?

“I cannot do philosophy in an intellectual vacuum and I can not do it by myself. I need others to talk to,” she said. “I am only a scholar to the degree that I continue to make my work vulnerable to the thoughts of others. I cannot bring my work into existence by myself.”

The Distinguished Scholar Award recognizes and honors excellence in scholarship acknowledged by both the Elon community and by the larger community of the recipient’s discipline. A selection committee receives nominations that must originate from individuals holding faculty rank at Elon University, and be supported through letters of recommendation by colleagues qualified to judge the candidate’s work.

Since joining Elon’s faculty in 1998, Cahill has written book chapters and numerous articles that have appeared in premier journals in the field of feminist philosophy, as well as two books on topics central to feminist thinking that had not been extensively explored. She has also co-edited two anthologies, presented at dozens of national and international conferences and received several fellowships and research grants, including five summer fellowships awarded by the Faculty Research and Development Committee at Elon.

Cahill’s work, which one colleague describes as “clear, thought provoking, original and compelling,” has become central to postmodern feminist philosophy and is frequently cited in that field’s literature and used as an instructional tool on college campuses across the country.

Her first book, Rethinking Rape (2001), drew from her dissertation at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, where she earned her doctorate in 1998. In it, Cahill sought to redefine the phenomenon of sexual violence by placing embodiment at its center: the self does not have a body but rather is a body, therefore rape is a crime against the very self and not just a crime of property as it’s typically construed.

Her most recent book, Overcoming Objectification: A Carnal Ethics, published in December 2010, is a critique of the feminist notion of objectification. It explores an emerging theoretical approach to feminist thinking in which women aren’t considered objects but rather restrained from reaching their full potential by conforming themselves to how men define sexuality.

Associate Professor Kirstin Ringelberg in the Department of Art & Art History offered the introduction for Cahill’s evening remarks to a large audience inside the theater. She noted how Cahill is the youngest professor to ever receive the university Distinguished Scholar Award and that her groundbreaking scholarship is already creating ripples in academia.

“We should be prepared for some big schools to come knocking with endowed chair offers in feminist philosophy, which I hope she resists,” Ringelberg said. “And you can’t read her work without realizing how many false assumptions you’ve had. Ann’s work forces us to look inside, and to think about the relationship between our thinking, our actions, and what is just.”


Eric Townsend,
4/19/2012 11:28 AM