by Heather Thiessen
“The Women’s Center at LPTS exists to work for the equality and dignity of all people, including in religious professions . . .”
The Women’s Center’s mission explicitly includes work for the dignity of all people. At first reading, this commitment seems straightforward and innocuous, if not somewhat banal. We contemporary readers are likely to skim over a word like dignity on our way to something juicier. We register its positive valence. We gather a vague impression that it evokes an amicable relation between well-behaved people who treat one another with respect. Our heads nod in easy agreement. All well and good, let’s move on.
Let’s not. As Giorgio Agamben has shown in Remnants of Auschwitz, “dignity” is a problematic concept. Worse, his critique of dignity, and of an ethics based on that concept, indicates that it ought to be an especially problematic notion for a Women’s Center. This mission of working for the dignity of all people calls for more thought.
Agamben’s critique of dignity begins with the history of the idea in Roman law and western philosophy. That history persists in dictionary definitions of “dignity” as “a high rank, title or office, especially in the church,” “one who holds high rank or position, a dignitary,” and “persons of high rank, collectively” (i.e., “the dignity,” a usage similar to that of “the clergy” or “the aristocracy”). Dignity in antiquity was an office or title, therefore something bestowed upon a person, separate from that person, and requiring a deference distinct from anything due to the person apart from the person’s dignity (office).
Much later, as the offices that were dignities passed into antiquity, the “stateliness and nobility of manner, serenity of demeanor, gravity” that had been required of their human bearers came to be valued for its own sake, and to be cultivated as a moral good. Aristocrats no longer in possession of economic or political power who made much of a dignity that took the form of refined manners, tastes and speech make a good example of this understanding of dignity. The notion of a dignity that takes the form of cleanliness, sobriety, discipline in work and rejection of unearned charity that 19th century progressives lauded as the virtue of the laboring class, which had never been in possession of economic or political power in the first place, makes another good example. Dignity in these cases is a way of appearing and behaving as respectable, despite lacking the cultural substance that commands respect.
Agamben’s problem with the traditional notion of dignity is precisely its dependance on a separation and distance between “life and norm.” This irreducible distance requires living people to shape themselves according to that norm in order to have dignity. That is, a life that coincides with its physical, embodied, biological processes must take on and keep up something additional, a specific form, to possess dignity as understood in this way.
But dignified upkeep is not always possible. In certain extreme situations no separation or distance between life and its norm, its “what must be done,” obtains. Recall that Agamben develops his critique in the context of a reflection on the catastrophic extremity of the Nazi death camps. He notes, however, that in the very different, every day extremity of the relations of lovers, dignity also becomes untenable. The maintenance of dignity as distance and decorum is incompatible with that physical, biological, incarnate love that is inseparable from its abandon in and to the beloved.
In fact, a dignity measured as distance from what Agamben calls bare life is arguably least available in the very situations in which the protection that it might afford is most sorely needed. If people who aim to be good must aim for dignity, those people suffering the worst indignities of injustice and violence are precisely those most excluded from the consolation of goodness; and if dignity in that sense is held to be the condition for deferential treatment, that holding leaves the most abused lives the most exposed to further abuse.
Further, the distance from physical, embodied, biological processes wrapped up in this sense of dignity has been particularly denied to women, along with others identified by their embodiment, by the long tradition of western thought. The identification of “woman” at every point with an intrusively female body, the paradigmatic site of undignified sexuality, animal reproduction, and vulnerability to victimization, long made “woman” a pregnant symbol of the opposite of dignity. Real live women could only pursue the social goods that accrued to such dignity by “rising above” their womanly station in the direction of man’s [sic] invulnerable spirituality. Feminists, in opposition to this disastrous denigration of women’s embodied lives, have sought to reappraise precisely these physical, biological processes that take place as flesh-and-blood women.
Dignity as distance, then, cannot be what the Women’s Center exists and calls its friends to work for. That notion, which a cursory reading would leave unchallenged, must be rejected in favor of a more possible and promising understanding of dignity.
That more possible and promising understanding begins with the sense of dignity as “the state or quality of being excellent, worthy, or honorable,” along with a clear understanding that this state or quality cannot rest on anything that would be separable from life, whatever its circumstances. Instead, this state or quality must be understood to coincide with that life, as created by God, embodying the image of God, and beloved of God. Dignity understood in this way does not depend on an irreducible distance between life and life’s conformity to a particular dignified standard. It is, rather, a life’s innate and intrinsic claim to deferential regard, to honor in the face of its constitutive excellence and worth. This dignity is not something that can be gained or lost. Its presence is no protection or guarantee. It can be ignored or recognized, violated or respected. It is, however, the ineluctable posing of a choice, against or for the radical kindness that constitutes justice in the face of such dignity.
The Women’s Center exists to work for this dignity for all people — women as well as men, alternatively as well as customarily gendered, of whatever specific qualities and qualifiers. That mission is, in actuality, our most radical, and religious, commitment.Please consider making a contribution to the Women’s Center during Summer Donation Days!
You can go to OUR ONLINE DONATION SITE, the LPTS Online Donation Site (designate your gift to the Women’s Center), or send your check payable to LPTS – WOMEN’S CENTER FUND to The Women’s Center at Louisville Seminary, 1044 Alta Vista Rd., Louisville, KY 40205.