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A World With Fewer Blinders

by Guy Spriggs

(Sept. 27, 2013)  — For almost a decade, UK philosophy professor Natalie Nenadic worked with feminist pioneer Catharine MacKinnon to coordinate a legal response to the sexual atrocities committed in the Bosnian genocide. Her efforts were integral in world recognition of such atrocities and their criminalization under international law.

After being awarded a grant from the American Association of University Women (AAUW), however, Nenadic is returning to her original research on understanding today’s proliferation of pornography and sexual violence and the role of technology in this development.

The AAUW grant won by Nenadic assessed not only the quality of projects themselves but also the degree to which candidates worked to foster issues pertaining to women. Nenadic hopes to finish the book she is working on as a result of this grant by the end of the year.

During the years Nenadic worked as a research scholar at The University of Michigan Law School and earned her doctorate in philosophy at Yale, she found herself pulled between addressing the emergency of the genocide by increasing the visible of sexual crime and her original research project. Now she excited for the opportunity to continue the work she put on the back burner years ago.

“This grant is absolutely critical to completing my project,” Nenadic said. “It allows me to return to the new philosophical path I was forging with regard to addressing today’s pornographic culture. I am able to gather parts of that research and get back on track with regard to doing further research and connecting new insights – especially those gained as a result of my work on genocide – with ideas I developed much earlier.”

Nenadic’s project involves using the philosophical approaches of Martin Heidegger to address the complications of today’s “pornographic culture.” For Nenadic, philosophy is an essential tool for understanding and responding to such changes in societal values.

“Philosophy addresses issues of the human condition: how do we make sense of our world and live in ways that are meaningful? If you study and teach philosophy and do not to address something so central to it, you’re not making philosophy speak to problems of its own time,” Nenadic explained. “Philosophy has to address matters of our time.”

According to Nenadic, Heidegger is particularly useful because his reflections can help us understand how technology – especially in the Internet age – facilitates this culture, making it harder escape. In other words, the reach of technology is so great that it can be difficult to define one’s self or values outside of a certain set of norms.

“It’s hard to make pornography’s main message – namely that women enjoy sexual violation and that men enjoy treating them that way – visible as a problem,” Nenadic said. “The ubiquity of this message, which is now blasted in culture via Internet-age technology, creates so many blinders you don’t even notice. That’s exactly Heidegger’s point: you’ve even lost the perspective that you’re so deeply in blinders. This culture is present all around us but somehow still invisible.”

And, as Nenadic points out, the negative effects of this culture of sexual degradation are not limited to women. “It keeps us from making freer choices about our existence because it’s already defined for us,” she said.

“This culture is telling you how you’re supposed to define your relationships and see yourself. It’s a preset formula, and it’s so widespread that if you try to resist you’re an anomaly,” Nenadic continued.

As in her past work, Nenadic’s approach involves combining new philosophical frameworks with concrete vehicles for social and cultural change.

“Once you make a philosophical contribution that helps us better understand a given problem you can participate in discussions about how to creatively use law and other practical instruments,” she said. “The first step is to rethink the issue and then to find practical avenues for making positive change.”