Institutions and Enlightenment

I’m reading Irene Tucker’s take on race, which ends up addressing the question of institutions and enlightenment.  In her words:

“The question of institutionalization that Kant takes up in the second essay of the Conflict is thus a question at the heart of the Enlightenment project itself, since even enlightened leaders or institutional structures can produce the opposite in their constituents if those leaders and institutions do the work of understanding in ways that relieve their constituents of the responsibility to think for themselves” (The Moment of Racial Sight, 44)

Her thinking reminds me of my own, which (right now) doesn’t have a home in my book.

Kant’s “What is the Enlightenment” describes what progress, improvement, and enlightenment mean in a modernizing age: individuals reject the wisdom of books, advisors, doctors, guardians—what might broadly be called institutional knowledge—to reason independently, and, therefore, become mature. But because immaturity is a yoke not easily thrown off, such maturity requires “efforts.” It is dangerous to unsettle the established order of things and difficult to work against the institutional desire for both obedience and stasis. But enlightenment as an individual process ultimately has institutional effects: “it even influences the principles of governments, which find that they can themselves profit by treating man, who is more than a machine, in a manner appropriate to his dignity.” In a truly enlightened age—a time when maturity is the norm—institutions can encourage rather than oppose enlightenment. Institutions have a dual role in Kant’s essay: they impede enlightenment and progress, but—at some future date—will reflect enlightenment and progress.  They ensure immaturity but, ideally, will eventually reflect modernity.

For Sedgwick, the promise of institutions does not lie in the future, a time when they can treat man “in a manner appropriate to his dignity,” but rather in their incompleteness, discordance, and necessarily gaps.  The problem of institutions is not simply that they lead to immaturity, they actively constrain and normalize knowledge in ways that teach queer children to conform or die. But Sedgwick does not hope for enlightenment or improved institutions or assure queer children that “it gets better,” she cherishes the “sites where the meanings didn’t line up tidily with each other.”  These sites do not reflect enlightenment or modernity, but rather emerge from an individual process of disarticulation, of disengaging various institutional sites and expectations to find queerness: “the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning when the constituent elements of anyone’s gender, of anyone’s sexuality aren’t made (or can’t be made) to signify monolithically.” Reconfiguring the bildungsroman structure where individual growth ultimately implies institutional progress that Kant readily adopts, Sedgwick suggests that individuals make affective spaces within and at odds with institutions without expecting or hoping that the institutions will eventually legitimate such spaces. Queerness means possibilities, but it does not require institutions to guarantee, secure, legitimate, or even signify such possibilities.

The difference between these two approaches lies not only in a different understanding of perfectibility (for Kant, institutions—or, at the very least, “the principles of government,” are perfectible, for Sedgwick they are not) but also one of temporal stance.  Although they both dissect the present, Kant looks forward to an improved future while Sedgwick offers strategies for inhabiting this present, how to be “Queer and Now.”  But these approaches share a sense of danger—acknowledging the labor and the risk of opposing institutional power.

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