Thursday, July 19, 2012

Aint Feminism a Philosophy?

I think this is going to have to be the first of many posts exploring Feminist philosophy and theology. It’s a topic that has fascinated me for most of my life really, as a boy encouraged to take on strongly gendered roles (thanks Catholic Boys school) but never finding much joy in them.

The genesis of my return to this topic was talking to a friend of mine. They stated that they are attracted to right-wing and conservative writers because such writers seem to be more capable of connecting broader social questions to matters of personal morality. I appreciated where they were coming from because as this blog shows I am fascinated by how we can ground our moral statements and make our moral choices. I then tend to see our broader social and political challenges as built from our moralities. At the time in response to my friend I thought of G.K. Chesterton who I wouldn’t call right wing although he is fairly traditional in his Catholicism. With that as my only example I was hardly broadening his view.

To my embarrassment I had forgotten to mention environmentalism with its strong ethos of “think global but act local”. That’s a whole world of philosophy that connects the faults and strengths of human society to our core moral attitudes. However what really struck me was how I didn’t remember where the very phrase “the personal is political” originated from; Feminism. You couldn’t get a better example of something that ties together personal relationships and social problems.

Feminism routinely gets ignored in philosophy. Partly that’s because a lot of philosophers are men (such as me and my friend). Further the stereotype of the philosopher as arrogant and pompous (me and my friend again perhaps) has some reality. Any philosophy usually aimed squarely at male arrogance will therefore face a tough room.

Bertrand Russell - analytical philospher.
In addition philosophy of a particular kind - analytical philosophy is its title- dismisses feminism for the same reason as it dismisses marxism or much of the anti-racist, post colonial writers. They are viewed as nihilisitic in how they empty truth, knowledge and beauty of permanent qualities. Feminism, anti-racism and post-colonialism often view these sacred philosophical ideals as tools in the service of power (ie. The Beauty Myth) The classical and analytical philosopher has instead prepared pedestals for truth, knowledge, and beauty. When Feminism disputes the aloofness of these concepts from everyday politicking it can be seen as an attack on philosophy itself.

Lastly anti-racist, post-colonial and feminist philosophies aren’t clamouring to apply for analytical philosophies approval anyway. They want to represent peoples, to serve their subjects agendas of liberation. Philosophy proper (as analytical philosophy can see itself) wants to make universal and eternal statements about reality rather than stay close to immediate realities. This would be like saying that rather than talking about how male dominance shapes knowledge we should just talk about how any stratification of authority shapes knowledge including a hypothetical one where women dominate. Many feminists see this as a watering down of the libratory truth-telling in their philosophy; it’s not after all how things are.

Western philosophy however is not all analytical. One other grouping is called Continental because it has more currency outside of England (on the continent of Europe). In fact analytical philosophy is a bit of a bizarre phenomenon in its privelaged almost in isolation, history in England. Perhaps its latest most famous champion was Bertrand Russell. If you think of philosophy as a type of science generating logical proofs (ie. of Gods existence or non-existence) then you’re thinking only of analytical philosophy.

Continental philosophy on the other hand is usually critical of scientism. Continental philosophy often embraces a storytelling and myth making component as a way of portraying our thinking including that of science. Continental philosophy is also existential – that is it is more concerned with describing the conditions of existence rather than the conditions of reality. The difference there is that Continental philosophers will talk about how we experience the truth subjectively (ie. as competing claims) rather than objective facts. This contributes to a willingness to talk about logical systems such as mathematics or gender as a language. Languages evolve, they meet needs, they keep secrets, they entertain, they are not just copies of reality.

Feminists particularly French feminism has played a large part in continental philosophy. Certainly continental philosophy doesn’t require Feminists to choose between changing the world and philosophizing about it. The point of continental philosophy is to change our lives. Nor does it treat beauty, truth and knowledge as fixed concepts. A hallmark of continental philosophy is its rejecting of ahistorical knowledge and its acceptance that we think from within our culture, time, economy and family. Hence Feminists return to contemporary social circumstances rather than eternal principles is seen as an asset rather than anti-philosophical.

One reason any philosopher, analytical or continental, can’t give for ignoring feminism is that it teaches us nothing new because we all accept that women and men are equal now. All philosophy of any worth follows the trajectory of absurdity to ubiquity; that is, it is originally preposterous because its outside the dominant way of thinking and it ends up being difficult to even mention because everyone assumes it so completely. Even if feminism had completely persuaded everyone of its philosophy then it would be no different to a lot of philosophical ideas - such as that absolute knowledge is unattainable. It is still very much a philosophical project to uncover these assumptions.

Regardless gender and particularly the presumptions of patriarchy remain a topical battleground. These are not resolved questions at all. Gendered difference has slowly been removed from the law in Australia. Women can vote, violence against women in marriage is illegal and more effectively enforced, custody of children does not automatically go to fathers upon separation of parents, however these are surprisingly recent changes and the cultural legacy of legal patriarchy remains strong. We barely notice womens sport in a culture that makes male players into national heroes. We have only just had our first female prime minister who is copping a far worse time of it for being a woman. Most men know of the subtle, unspoken pissing contest they have to get past in order to make a new male friend in which context women are prizes rather than contestants themselves.

Then there are voices calling for a return to more explicit patriarchy – who claim that we’ve gone too far in denying mens natural leadership of their women and children. For the most part these voices want to change society through evangelism, separatism for their communities, how they raise their kids and economic decision making rather than imposing change through the law but not entirely. These voices are not timid about declaring that what they believe about men’s duty to lead (and women’s obligation to shut up) is right for all.

From another direction we have other kinds of infantilizing of women. The prepubescent shaved look is the porn star norm. Magazines in every petrol station encourage a bimbo mentality to go with a rapacious sexuality. Even if you want to believe it’s a liberation you have to choke on the “joke” that if “women didn’t have vaginas they’d be mile deep at the tip” (from People Magazine I kid you not).

The language of our gender, our sexuality and our bodies is being contested around us in ways we should want to be philosophically resilient to. We don’t however have to look only to conservative and right-wing philosophy to find people engaging in that conversation. We can begin in the most obvious place of all ; Feminism.

Some personal favourite feminist reads of mine include;

The Straight Mind and other Essays by Monique Whittig

Look Me In Ihe Eye by Barbara McDonald & Cynthia Rich

Gender Outlaw by Kate Bornstein

Teaching to Transgress – Education as the Practice of Freedom by bell hooks

Currently reading The Will To Change; Men, Masculinity, and Love by bell hooks.

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