ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

A journal for poetry, criticism, reviews, stories and essays published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998.


"This month of May 2015", an essay by Ricardo Nirenberg


Latest News: Marquard, Bazelon, Nungesser and Sulkowicz.

This month of May 2015 two events occurred, apparently unrelated: one is the death, on May 9, at age 87, of the distinguished German philosopher Odo Marquard, professor at the University of Gießen; the other is double: the commencement ceremony at Columbia University, held on May 20, in New York City, together with the article published by the New York Times on May 30, signed by Emily Bazelon, commenting on that ceremony. I would like to suggest a way to think of those events as meaningfully implicated around this phrase: “the requisite legitimacy,” and the questions that the two words, ‘requisite’ and ‘legitimacy’, are sure to evoke.

Odo Marquard, like Sextus Empiricus and Montaigne, counted himself among the Pyrrhonian Skeptics, those who do not know anything for certain, but keep searching.  Literary savvy, he had that rare quality among philosophers: a gentle and impish sense of humor.  In his brief essay “Unburdenings: Theodicy Motives in Modern Philosophy” (a lecture delivered in Berlin in 1983, included in the book In Defense of the Accidental, translated by Robert M. Wallace, Oxford U Press, 1991; pp. 8-28), Marquard begins:

“Today there is a prevailing, widespread tendency to require everything and everyone to legitimize itself or herself or himself.  Everything is supposed to enter a ‘context of justification’ (of which the luxury model is the so-called ‘dominance-free discourse’) and to justify itself, especially if it has entered a legitimation crisis—and today, in what people like to call the ‘post-conventional age’, that seems to be the case with everything.”

There are at least three knowing winks in the above.  ‘Context of justification’ is directed to Hans Reichenbach’s division of scientific activity into a context of discovery and a context of justification; the phrase ‘dominance-free discourse’ points to the work of J. Habermas and K. O. Apel; while ‘post-conventional age’ refers to the psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg’s six-fold division of moral development, in which those of us at the highest, ‘post-conventional’ stages are ethically autonomous and formulate their own principles, like Immanuel Kant (badate ben, non io, as Leporello used to say).  Marquard goes on:

“This boom in the demand for justification is a phenomenon that needs to be seen, and which therefore needs a name.  Because it makes everything into, as it were, a tribunal, I call it the ‘tribunalization’ of the reality of modern life.”

No more is necessary to grasp the reason for that word in the title, “Unburdenings,” for, in Marquard’s view, the burden of formulating our own reason-grounded principles that will guide all and each of our actions is heavier than human beings can bear.  Which explains, too, why Marquard speaks in defense of the Accidental, since that is accidental which admits of no intelligible cause, no ground, i.e. which falls outside of the authority of the Principle of Sufficient Reason. That much seems clear, but another term in the title, “Theodicy,” may also be in need of explanation.  It means, in Greek, a (human) justification of god.  In ancient times, gods were in no need of justification, so this word did not exist in ancient Greek.  Neither in Hesiod nor in the Book of Job do we find gods justifying their actions: they only had to remind humans of the immense distance separating the divine from the human to put a grumbler like Job back in his place.  It was Leibniz who coined the word ‘theodicy,’ who formulated explicitly for the first time the Principle of Sufficient Reason, and who provided a full-fledged argument that this world, god-created, is the best possible, thus occasioning Voltaire’s popular mockery, Candide.

Theodicy and its relation to the modern age (i.e. after the Middle Ages down to our times) is one of the grand themes studied by Marquard, and also by his friend the Münster philosopher Hans Blumenberg, author of the 1964 book Legitimacy of the Modern Age.  The gist of the story begins with the Gnostics, who felt that this is a very bad world, and taught that its creator, the demiurge, is an evil or stupid god.  The good deity is infinitely far away and does not concern itself with the common rabble.  Gnosticism is a very tangled and still-debated historical mess, but it is clear that it posed serious dangers for Christianity in its first three or four centuries, hence an elaborate theological bulwark was erected in defense of the Creator of the Old Testament by the Fathers of the Church, especially by Augustine.  The latter’s doctrines of creation ex-nihilo, of original sin, and of predestination were designed to counter Gnosticism and Manichaeism and to lend the God of the Bible and His creation the requisite legitimacy.  Augustine denied that God had a reason for creating the world, or that man needs a reason for turning away from the good and being sinful.  Nor did God need a reason for letting Job be struck by Satan.

According to Blumenberg and to Marquard, however, this bulwark, this medieval fortress, proved insufficient, and the modern age, the so-called “Age of Reason,” is coterminous with attempts at a theodicy based on the Principle of Sufficient Reason or Ground and on the autonomy that we, as rational beings, are supposed to possess—or to achieve—as in Kant’s ethics.  We, each of us, are the ones who are supposed to lend the world, God (optional), and each of our actions (required) the requisite legitimacy.  Marquard deems this unbearable.  He compares our times of tribunalization to the Reign of Terror in France under the Jacobins and the Committee of Public Safety, when everyone was a suspect until shown otherwise.



The other event, the 2015 commencement ceremony in Morningside Heights and the article by Emily Bazelon in the New York Times, will require, too, some explanation for those who have not read the news; an explanation, I’m afraid, which may prove to be more abstruse and harder to grasp than the previous ones about Prof. Odo Marquard.  More scabrous too, for it involves the sexual activities of two Columbia students, a male (Nungesser) and a female (Sulkowicz). 

This year, the Columbia ceremony was marred or enhanced (depending on your opinion) by Sulkowicz lugging around a mattress with the help of friends.  University officials had asked her to unburden, but she had refused: since the beginning of her senior year last fall she had been lugging a mattress as a reminder of the crime committed against her, a crime that was so far unpunished.  And why should she unburden at graduation, when she had been given credit for the lugging: her “mattress project” had even been accepted as her senior thesis.

Apparently Sulkowicz and Nungesser began their relationship as friends with a number of common intellectual interests, and, as it often happens with people of college age, slipped together into bed on several occasions. Then, during a sexual encounter that proved to be the last, something else happened: Nungesser penetrated Sulkowicz’s anus.  He claims it was consensual; she, that he was violent.  This disagreement surfaced only after several months when the young woman denounced the young man before Columbia’s officials.  In between, during those months, friendly mails were exchanged between the two, which tends to show that Sulkowicz’s feeling that she had been raped took some time to emerge.  Again, that is not unusual.  Columbia University exonerated Nungesser from the charge of assault, after which Sulkowicz began lugging the mattress as a protest against Columbia and as a public rite of dishonor and shame upon her former friend.

And now to the NYT article by Emily Bazelon, who is very fair, very careful not to favor either side of the contention, and who concludes the following:

“Sulkowicz and Nungesser’s case is unusual in the exhausting intensity of the media circus that has attended it. But the swirl of accusations and counteraccusations, and the reaction to them, reflects the current moment — a transitional period in the evolution of how universities handle sexual assault. The Obama administration has demanded that institutions do more to investigate and adjudicate complaints of sexual assault and harassment, but it’s not clear that they have shown that their disciplinary processes have the requisite legitimacy. It is a moment in which, as the tumult at Columbia shows, we can’t afford to stay for long.”  (My bolds.)

Bazelon is saying what Marquard was saying with almost the same words, if with opposite intention.  In the journalist’s opinion, we—i.e. our society—cannot afford to do without procedures that adjudicate cases like ‘Sulkowicz versus Nungesser’ with the requisite legitimacy, but she does not offer suggestions about how that could be achieved, and we shouldn’t blame her for that.  In the Marquard’s view, the legitimacy of procedures of such scope is a will-o’-the-wisp, and our inability to live without the assurance that such legitimacy is achievable, a grave disease of modernity.

I find it remarkable that this modern drive to tribunalization on the basis of fair argument and pure reason, without recourse to old religious taboos, has found here its stumbling block, its scandal, in an ancient cultural motif.  Anal penetration has often been associated, at least in the Western tradition, with domination and humiliation and with the ancient Greek cultural-philosophical opposition active/penetrator against passive/penetrated, an opposition that ran parallel to those, now exploded, between male and female, form and matter, master and slave.  Of course, this does not mean that every person feels that way; it does mean that the above association and parallelism is an ancient thread in our cultures.  So it is not to be wondered at that even though she apparently did not react immediately, Sulkowicz eventually came to feel that she had been humiliated, upon which she decided to repay her former friend in kind.  One may sympathize with her.  It is a different question, and a moot one, whether a university should give encouragement and academic credit for a project of revenge.

There is general agreement that the university should nurture intellectual discourse, and, if you go along with the critical work of Habermas et al, the discourse ought to be ‘dominance-free’, which in particular implies humiliation-free.  But is it possible to include what happens in bed between two young people in the category ‘discourse’, that is, logos?  Is sexual intercourse a form or a part of discourse?  If so, it should be subject to the generally agreed upon rules of discourse, and that means logic.  In logic sameness rules, and rules are always the same; identities are fixed, unchanged by time; x = x, a ‘no’ is always a ‘no’, a ‘yes’ always a ‘yes’.  No room for poetic ambiguity, or for expressions like “pallaksch”, invented by Hölderlin and used by Paul Celan, which sometimes means ‘yes’ and sometimes ‘no’.

I’ll let it go at that and only wish that our colleges and universities will be able to unburden, to cast off this bug-infested mattress.  Educating is burden enough.



Ricardo Nirenberg is the editor of Offcourse

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