Book Review: ‘Politics with Beauvoir: Freedom in the Encounter’

By Jodi Dean
Politics & Gender

In Politics with Beauvoir, Lori Marso accomplishes multiple remarkable feats. She liberates Simone de Beauvoir from the constraints of expectations constellated around either her relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre or a feminism too white and tired. She turns some of Lars von Trier’s seemingly most misogynist films (e.g., Antichrist and Nymphomaniac) into powerful critiques of patriarchy. She presents a bold and original account of freedom. Were I to criticize this account, I would say that Marso is too modest: she attributes the idea of freedom in the encounter to Beauvoir, even as she acknowledges that it is she, Marso, who introduces the term “encounter” into her conversation with Beauvoir (as I explain below, “conversation” is another important term for Marso). I will not make this criticism, though, because it would obscure Marso’s basic insight: freedom, whether of thinking, creating, feeling, or acting, is never individual, never isolated. It is always and only freedom through an encounter with others. This is the core idea Marso models and develops in this remarkable book.

Marso presents “situation” and “ambiguity” as two notions key to Beauvoir’s political theory. “Situation” points to the social, political, and historical structures that configure the settings in which we find ourselves. “Ambiguity” indexes embodied lived experience—the affects, objects, moods, and contingencies part of yet irreducible to their setting. “Encounter” brings in plurality and struggle, the relations at stake between people in ambiguous situations. The encounter opens up the possibility for freedom. Indeed, Marso goes further: “While situation and ambiguity define the potential for individual and group autonomy, agency, and action, freedom itself is possible only within encounters” (4). Freedom requires others. Unlike a certain version of liberalism that sees others as the limit to one’s freedom, Marso gives us a notion of freedom as dependent on others, as unrealizable except through encounters with others.

What, then, is an encounter and what is the underlying concept of freedom? Marso describes encounter as a “literary-political technique” (98). She gets the idea from Beauvoir’s method in The Second Sex. According to Marso, Beauvoir’s strategy is to stage “encounters within texts, and between texts and readers” to show “how feelings emerge within material conditions (via bodies encountering other bodies and things in situations) and move in and through ideologies, myths, and systems to produce, reproduce, or challenge inequality and oppression” (17). Feelings are not my singular and private responses to experiences unique to me. They are irreducibly embodied and collective, linked to material conditions and mobilized by common and conflicting myths and ideologies. As techniques for theorizing politically, encounters “illuminate a complex field of affects” (24). A properly staged encounter reveals and elicits multifaceted sensibilities, inviting us to attend to what we might have been in the practice of missing and moving us to consider how our practices might change and be changed.

Marso presents conversations as a basic form of encounter, although at times the terms seem to be synonyms, interchangeable. As literary–political techniques, Marso’s conversations escape the fetishization of face-to-face engagement to stretch across time and space, the living and the dead, the fictional and the “real,” as well as multiple genres (i.e., novels, essays, and films). Conversations open up possibilities but make no promises; there are no guarantees or final answers. With Beauvoir, Marso embraces openness and ambiguity: pleasure and danger go together; repetition may be more than drudgery; protest may not be conscious; “we’s” are created, not discovered. The multiple conversations Marso stages in Politics with Beauvoir conjoin Beauvoir and Hannah Arendt, Beauvoir and von Trier, Beauvoir and Frantz Fanon, Beauvoir and Richard Wright, as well as more complex combinations of films, filmmakers, directors, actors, characters, and theorists.

Freedom appears as the opening or gap produced by an encounter. Something new emerges when people, texts, and ideas come together: new insights, connections, sensibilities. The combination exceeds its elements. This excess may well be unsettling, but that is part of the challenge of freedom, venturing beyond the given and expected. Insofar as conversations are encounters that enable freedom, the theorist who stages conversations does significant political work. She brings something new into being (Arendt’s influence, especially but not only her understanding of politics in terms of natality and the creation of something new, is present throughout Marso’s book).

The conversation that frames Politics with Beauvoir comes from a comic strip, Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For. Two lesbians are discussing what makes a film feminist. They come up with what has become known as the “Bechdel rule”: to be feminist, a film must have “at least two (named) female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man” (150). Marso emphasizes that a politics here exceeds calls for more screen time for women. The demand creates new women; it generates new conversations, onscreen and off: “When women come together to talk about something other than men … new dynamics are put in motion and things begin to change” (177–178). Marso’s conversation with Beauvoir, through the conversations she stages between Beauvoir and others, turns the “Bechdel rule” into a method for feminist theory. Beauvoir is not isolated in her familial role as lone feminist mother. Nor is she limited as an existentialist rib to Sartre’s philosophy. She embarks on conversations with thinkers and directors, conversations that change the world.

I confess that at times I felt myself pushing against the literary-filmic-aesthetic dimensions of Marso’s encounters. Where she appeals to the mobilization of new collectivities, I kept seeing authors and readers when I wanted the working-class women of Paris or Petrograd marching in the streets and bringing on the revolution. Marso’s collective is imaginary, textual, symbolic. By the end of the book, I was with her and this new collective of women. Marso brings in the novelist Elena Ferrante and her reflections on interconnection and being entangled: “We are a crowd of others” (201). Marso’s encounters help keep this crowd with us, reminding us of its presence when racial capitalist patriarchy wants us to think that the only conversations that matter are those of the 1%.