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Tag Archives: Feminism

Truth is a funny thing to think about, isn’t it?  The idea that something can be True forever? Something about the concept of Forever is disquieting, or majestic, or both. Contemplating the idea of an infinity is like standing at the foot of a mountain and looking up–or like standing at the top and looking down.

It’s a mathematical truism that infinity comes in different sizes. This can seem silly or unnecessarily complicated but really…didn’t we already know that? After all, it’s true for time; there are different lengths of eternity which we navigate from day to day.

And yet, despite this, we don’t think about eternity much in the modern day. Eternity, and eternal Truths, seem to have gone out of vogue. Everything is rapidly changing; politics, fashion, the environment, society, math, biology, technology. We harnessed coal and steam and changed the face of the world, but coal and steam did not last forever. We created nations and kingdoms and armies, but those don’t endure. The borders are constantly redrawn. We thought we understood biology–of humans, and of animals–but often enough to be alarming, what we thought we knew about medicine in 2010 turns out to be exactly the opposite.

And, of course, there’s no room for eternity in daily life. When you spend 16 hours awake and 8 of them working, that only leaves 8 hours for everything else; 2 hours to see family and friends, 2 hours to eat, 1 hour to take care of yourself, 1 hour to exercise…that leaves 2 hours for everything else.

The “onward march of progress” has included, among other things, the slow and inexorable hunt and extermination of infinities. Some eternities remain–mostly in pseudo-religious contexts, things that were once sacred and spiritual which have now been secularized. Ceremonies. Holiday celebrations. Communal gatherings. Other eternities survive in the recesses of personal life. Lovers’ trysts. Family gatherings. Deep conversations that start at 2 in the morning and seem to last forever.

The age of eternal truths has ended as well. At the risk of sounding dramatic, postmodern thought has killed Truth. This is not necessarily a bad thing: many empires were founded upon Truth, and the collars of many prisoners were shackled at its altar. But it remains that there are few True things we can attest to.

In the past one might have said “Well, I know very little about the world, but I know I am a Man, and that tells me what I must do!” We’ve since explored more fully what we assume “A Man” to be, and found it not to our liking. As a matter of fact, many of us kill ourselves trying to fit into that definition. So we reject it as Truth and accept it as a guideline–something to steer by, occasionally. But we take no Truth to replace it. We have overthrown the definition which imprisons us, without bothering to find out what it is we should use in its place.

I don’t mean this to sound like an indictment of feminism. Far from it; the feminist movement has been immensely enriching to the lives of all people (yes, including men). But feminism and critical identity theory and postmodern thought have done their work with the enthusiasm of termites, undermining the structures which oppress the population, and leaving very little accessible to us. What remains is a kind of desolation. What values can we embrace, when we know that the ones we grew up with are problematic? How can we anchor ourselves in the world when the words and ways we interact with it are linked so closely to old violence?

There must (I hope) come a response. The purpose of religious ritual is to put us in touch with Eternity: to remind us of our place in the cosmos, and allow us to take part and take pride in the World. The purpose of Truth is to equip us to understand falsehood; as Chesterton said:

“It is ludicrous to suppose that the more sceptical we are the more we see good in everything. It is clear that the more we are certain what good is, the more we shall see good in everything.”

I think that we have really, as a culture, still not fully recovered from postmodernism. It passed over us like a fever; in its wake it left a great many systems cleaner and clearer, and we are closer to good health…but we’re still shaken and scatterbrained in its wake.

G.K. Chesterton writes his book Heretics on this subject. Gilbert is a journalist, a splendid and punchy writer of editorials, and Heretics is, in short, an editorial review of the 20th-century’s Western social and intellectual traditions. Chesterton finds his Truth–his Eternity–in his Christian faith, something we seem to be moving away from, as a species. I ask then, of the West; with what Truth are we to replace it? Skepticism has torn down many dogmas and pointed out that many powerful men have used them to deceive and beguile us. But in the process they pulled down Truth and Eternity with them, and now we have to start over in figuring out where to go, as individuals, and as a species.

That’s the bad news. The good news is, when everything is meaningless, there’s no bad place to start finding meaning. Find eternity in art. In cleaning or building. In coloring. In conversation. Find Truth in laughter, in good company, in helping your friends. Find meaning in everything; especially in the things that mean something to you.

 

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I recently had the pleasure of reading this impassioned piece from the Washington Post. By “recently” I mean “today.” I’ve since reread it several times, because the commodification of American colleges and the narrowing of academic fields is an issue very dear to my heart.

As I reread this piece (which, now that I’ve begun this blog post, I confess I find rather uninspiring), I must ask: who is its audience? The author’s entire argument can be summarized by skipping the entire article and reading the last sentence: “Genuine education is not a commodity, it is the awakening of a human being.”

Great. Super. Fantastic. I’m on board. I agree.

Who are you talking to? Are you talking to me? I just finished college. I’m probably going back for more school. My response to a similar article was a little salty, to say the least–but still. Is this directed at future employers? At students? At current college professors?

I think it’s the third one. C. Door Number Three. The soaring rhetoric and its entrenched location within the Washington Post seem to corroborate this first impression. Use of the word “naive” (a word often used to encompass the analytical category of “people who don’t understand academia”) deepens my suspicion.

So what is this article saying, then, if it is directed at other professors? What is the ultimate message being conveyed? I don’t know–I’m not a professor (my only degree is a B.A., which I promise you was hard-earned).

My first and immediate point to make in response to this article is:

A): re: “Genuine education is not a commodity.” True. “Education” in a liberal arts context is learning how to engage with and integrate multiple disciplinary, cultural, and/or epistemological perspectives. In other words, it’s about learning multiple different ways of doing things, in order to be able to apply the appropriate one(s) to all relevant situations. It’s something you can achieve on your own, or with the help of your parents, or with the help of unpaid teachers, or at a state school, or at an Ivy-league university. Education is, as this good professor says, “the discovery that you can use your mind to make your own arguments and even your own contributions to knowledge,” (I’ve made this analogy before); mastering multiple different theoretical perspectives, much like Bruce Lee learned multiple martial arts–to be able to better accomplish your own goals with the most effective method.

HOWEVER

What happens throughout this article is a persistent (and, if I can borrow the word briefly, pernicious) conflation of the process of learning, the undergraduate experience, and the university-as-business. 

EDUCATION, as we’ve previously pointed out, can happen anywhere. An argument can be made that it’s easier to achieve “education” in a college environment. That argument is not occurring here (or, rather, it’s occurring off the page, a dirty trick that I would have expected from a philosopher, not a classics scholar (though the difference is sometimes hard to spot. The easy test? Do they ever mention German names?). The education is what “good” students are after. This is why they are good students–because whether by temperament or economic good fortune, they are highly interested in the self-improvement aspect of a college education, not just its value as a commodity. I was one of those students, because I was extremely lucky financially, and because I am a huge nerd.

The undergraduate experience is a whole other canteen of nematodes, which I’m not going to get into right now, but basically shorthand version: going to a college, participating in classes, learning from professors, etc., all are part and parcel of what makes college so transformative. College can force you out of your comfort zone (if you aren’t EXTREMELY, NEUROTICALLY devoted to remaining within it), and it’s when we’re out of our comfort zone that we grow. However, it’s not the issue at hand.

Number three (again number three! Second one in the article! I wonder if it has any cosmological significance…?): The university-as-business. This is the part that our author seems to be worked up about, which I find troubling for reasons I’ll expand below. But basically, my response: College has become a commodity in the U.S. (and in the wider world, I’m sure, but I am not concerned with that at the moment). As our author acknowledges, college is “replacing high school as the required ticket for a career.” This means that having a college education makes you stand out (even at my workplace, my co-workers make jokes about my “fancy college degree”). Your odds of being employed (and employed well) skyrocket. Success in college pretty heavily indicates success later in life.

Now, unlike the last article I blasted on my blog, I don’t entirely reject the author’s point here. The commodification of education is a problem (not just because of the way in which it bars the doors to the lower and middle classes). Some students do treat their college purely as a business, feeling entitled to a degree with no effort or challenge on their part. The government sees colleges as businesses, and so does not offer them any great degree (ha) of support.

Ultimately, colleges have adapted. The college I attended occupied an uncertain middle ground between being a business and a place of education. There was a tension between the institution’s bottom line and their values. On the student side, there was similar tension–we sought to balance our role as students with our newfound power as customers. It gives students an unprecedented degree of power, to acknowledge that they are customers. We have to figure out what that power MEANS, all of us, students and professors.

Hence, my concern. Rather than acknowledging the changing face of education (and trying to offer some direction going forward), this article seems to deny it. Education is not about money, the author says. It’s about the students’ engagement with the material. Well…that’s not true. Not any more.

Education is about money. It is inextricably, inalienably, unavoidably about money. Even when you’re talking about student engagement–who are the students who can afford to be engaged? The ones who don’t work an extra 30 hours each week to pay for school? The ones who don’t have to take care of children? The ones who could afford to go to school in the first place? The ones who could buy the textbooks–the list goes on. The point is: “student engagement” is not the boogieman to pin the problems on. Like it or not, the problems are more complex than that. We can’t escape the complexities of the present-day university by just demanding that students pay more attention.

That is where my problem with this piece comes in. I don’t think it’s wrong…I just think it’s not asking the right question. The question we need to ask ourselves is: What does it mean that students are now customers? What new pressures does that place on faculty? On students? On administration? What power does this give all of those involved in higher education? When a bad grade or a faculty grudge can make or break a students’ future, how do we negotiate these structures? And when a bad review or an angry parent can ruin a professor’s future, how do we negotiate these structures? What about higher education needs to change? And what needs to stay the same?

And for the love of GOD, can we not commit the fallacy of equivocation so damn much? Jeez, people. More of you need to take philosophy classes.

Have you ever read gender theory?

sweet mother of

 

oh god make it stop

Now, this is not exactly “gender theory”; this is feminism in a raw, elementally academic form.  This is not just any feminist theory: this is Judith Butler.

Judith Butler, whose Wikipedia picture stares out at you with the piercing gaze of Galadriel, has written extensively about gender theory–and identity at large–including Bodies That Matter: On The Discursive Limits of Sex.  She has produced many brilliant pieces, which are just as easy to read as other writing we have previously discussed, like the Outline of a Theory of Practice:

oh please not again

oh please not again

Why is that? It’s not just Butler (who, I stress again, is brilliant).  Gender theory at large is permeated, saturated with big words.   I’ve discussed this before.   If you haven’t read Bodies that Matter, you should. Butler’s writing is fantastic, and mind-blowing, and meshes well not only with gender theory but with contemporary phenomenology.

Unfortunately, Butler is also somewhat impenetrable.  No worse than Bourdieu or Foucault or Husserl or any number of other academic writers, but then the purpose of feminism is not “merely” academic, is it? It should not seem too much of a stretch to suggest that feminism is concerned with theory only as it relates to the achievement of certain stated goals; I.E. the advancement of a political perspective which co-opts the affectations of academic discourse to further its own propagation.  Thus, authors like Butler infiltrate the larger ongoing discussion of identity by using the regular linguistic patterns of “academia”; a subversive approach to feminist writing.

Partly that’s because it’s JUST SO EASY to slip into jargon.  We (and by “we” I am broadly generalizing about anyone who has been taught to talk about gender) have learned certain words, and we have trouble thinking about the topic in other words, let alone speaking about it.

But “the academic discourse” is not the only conversation.  And for every person who finds Butler’s work illuminating, there are lots more who find it inhospitable.  The language which feminism has learned can integrate it into academic discourse quite effectively, and more’s the pity; many promising fields and causes have failed as a result of being entirely integrated with academic discourse.

For feminism to succeed, it needs a voice that can be understood by everyone, not just by academics. For a broad cultural change to take place, feminism must permeate to every level of this big Marxian layer cake called “society.”

When I say “feminism must do x to succeed,” of course, I am drawing on actual stated feminist goals, which tend to exist either in the short term (I intend to use this paper to show the production of gender in interaction, I intend to challenge the perception of the body as a single entity, etc.) and also in the longer term (reshaping society, dismantling the patriarchy, creating cultural change).  To both of these types of goals, the academic voice is, of course, crucial.  We learn from the academic voice.

But we also need feminists who speak plain English.  Who can explain that gender is not quite as solid as it seems.  It isn’t an impossible task, but it is a challenging one.

For example, we can explain that (although we use it to define ourselves, identify ourselves, give ourselves shape and solidity), gender is like a handshake.  A handshake takes place between two people.  The handshake exists only in the interaction between the two people, and everyone involved in the handshake thinks about the others based on what they observe in the gesture.  Let’s slow that down and repeat: The handshake exists in the interaction between two people.  The handshake does not have an independent existence above and beyond two people.  It is not a “thing” you can point to.  It is the product of interaction, and it is created each time two people grab each other’s fingers and squeeze.

Now, no one identifies themselves by their handshake (except perhaps used car salesmen from the 1950s), but you could. You could define yourselves as a soft shaker or a hard shaker (shut up).  And you judge other people based on what you learn from that quick interaction: Do they have a strong handshake? Do they have a good grip? How are they holding their fingers?

Gender is the same way—we make decisions about ourselves and other people based on what we see, and what we do.

Are they wearing a dress? Makeup? What’s their body language like? And we can define ourselves as a dress-wearer, or a feminine-body-language-have-er—or, to use shorthand, a woman.  True, there are more moving parts in gender than there are in a handshake.  Handshaking involves how you hold yourself, your shoulder, and your hand.  Gender involves how you hold yourself, how you use your body, how you talk, how you think, what you wear, what you say, when you say it, whether or not you are comfortable saying it–and more.

Have you ever found yourself being more of a “dude” when surrounded by dudes? More “womanly” when surrounded by women?  Have you ever “dialed back” your gender (or heck, any other identity) in order to fit in?Have you squeezed harder on someone’s hand because their handshake was firm? Did you begin to make nerd culture references because you were talking to nerds? Have you changed what you do, to change what people think of you? Yes you have. What we do changes when we talk to different people. We’re human.  We calibrate.

shut up, Garrus

“Hey! That’s my job!”

In turn, when we have figured out who we are, when we make that apparent in our gender “handshake,” other people take that and interpret it in their own way.  You do that too.  It’s how we understand people.  Is someone wearing an Attack On Titan hoodie? Are they whistling a song by Fleetwood Mac? What other people are doing changes who and what we think they are.

Slowing it down; what does this mean? Gender is like a handshake.  A handshake consists of things we do (sometimes unconsciously–have you ever given a handshake without really thinking about it?) in interaction with other people.  It doesn’t exist outside of human context.  A huffy anthropologist once said “Human thought is consummately social.”

What does that mean? Gender exists only in human interaction and in human minds, not as a thing unto itself.  Does that mean gender isn’t important?

Not in the slightest.  Some other time, I’ll address the idea that just because something exists only in the human mind, it isn’t real, but for now we’ll bracket that issue and set it aside with the comment that it’s dumb.

Gender exists only in the interaction and performance of people.  Gender isn’t important?

Then why do we still shake hands?*

*You can replace “handshake” with any other reflexive, person-to-person cultural gesture, like bowing, high-fiving, greetings, language, the NHL…)

 

Gender is fundamentally important to us all.  The history of the world agrees.  But what is it? I am beginning to discover that it is much more than it seems.  And it is only by understanding that, that we can begin to talk about gender in any productive way.  Only by realizing that gender perpetuates itself in what we do, consciously and unconsciously, every second of every day.  Gender is something we do, and something we have done since childhood.  It is habit many times over.

That is what feminism is up against.  “Patriarchy” merely refers to billions upon billions of habits across billions of people, all placed below the level of consciousness, which have the final, practical, real-world result of destroying, oppressing, and handicapping human development. 

That’s a big job.  It’s not one you’ll finish just by controlling academia.  It needs to be the groundwater.  Feminism needs to be ubiquitous.  So if you’re still reading, and you’re a feminist, I would say this:

Take feminism everywhere. Not even in your overt actions, but in your thoughts.  Feminist theory can be at its most potent and most subversive when it is behind the scenes, when it is upsetting the foundations of the world and pretending to be business as usual.  When it seems to be the most natural thing in the world, feminism has the upper hand.

We have a big task.

Time to get cracking.