Whos Afraid of Theory?

BY Lisa Yun Lee

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Ivory-tower feminism has a bad rap: It’s perceived as convoluted and theoretical, mired in jargon and intellectual elitism and, frankly, a big bunch of mumbo-jumbo. Compared to the vigorous, policy-changing, dynamic nature of grassroots activism, theory seems constipated, static and pretentious. Clearly, the woman’s movement is advanced more by volunteering as an escort at an abortion clinic or participating in the exuberance of the March for Women’s Lives in Washington than by spending an agonizing afternoon deciphering paragraph-long sentences.

Or is it?

Disdain for academic feminism reached its apogee during the 1998 Bad Writing Contest. Sponsored by The Journal of Philosophy and Literature, this annual (but now defunct) tongue-in-cheek competition recognizes “the most stylistically lamentable passages found in scholarly books and articles published in the last few years.” When Judith Butler, feminist theorist and professor at the University of California, Berkeley, won the contest that year, it was more fuel for conservative attacks on feminist scholarship and the abandonment of traditional standards and subjects at universities.

It is hard to defend Butler’s first-prize passage, from an article published in the scholarly journal Diacritics, as anything but confounding and opaque:

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relationships in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

However, “bad” writing too often is equated with difficult and complex writing. Language is never a simply neutral vehicle for a message; it is a battleground and a site of power, resistance and struggle. Feminist theorists long have challenged language through use of unconventional syntax, bad grammar and neologisms in order to convey something new and disquieting.

Examples are legion—from the simple act of replacing the pronoun “he” to “she” in a sentence (unveiling the hidden agendas of language), to radical theologist Mary Daly’s observation that “therapist” can be hyphenated to be read as “the-rapist” (symbolically pointing to how psychoanalysis attempts to portray female anger and rebellion as hysteria), to the renaming of the word “history” to “herstory” (reflecting how women have been written out of the main historical narrative). Feminist language-play can be hysterical, yes, but also rich and revealing.

But many feminists have questioned these efforts. After the Bad Writing Contest debacle, it was Martha Nussbaum, a well-regarded feminist philosopher and professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago, who followed up with a long attack on Butler in The New Republic. Her piece exposed a thorny debate within feminism and the women’s movement: theory vs. practice.

“It is difficult to come to grips with Butler’s ideas, because it is difficult to figure out what they are,” Nussbaum writes. “Hungry women are not fed by this, battered women are not sheltered by it, raped women do not find justice in it, gays and lesbians do not achieve legal protection through it.”

It seems reasonable to question what it means to be “socially relevant,” as if we all agree on what this rather fuzzy notion entails. But making the production of knowledge subordinate to how useful and practical it can be is extremely shortsighted. We should not limit the idea of social transformation to immediately identifiable social justice goals. Readily obvious political ends may not unleash the imagination that is required for true liberation. Even as we need to have marches on Washington, develop grassroots strategies for coalition building and push for policy reform, we also need conceptual tools to battle sexism and oppression.

By examining some of the thinkers working in the Ivory Tower, we can see that their accomplishments and influence illustrate the fluidity between what’s perceived as a rigid divide between theory and practice. These women provide a much-needed service by unleashing a radical imagination.

Judith Butler

A professor of rhetoric and comparative literature at Berkeley, Butler is most famous for promoting the notion of “performativity” and for rousing what she calls “gender trouble.” Unsatisfied with the entrenched feminist description of the social construction of gender, Butler calls upon the main metaphor of “drag.” Butler argues that all of us enact behaviors associated with masculinity and femininity, and in this way gender is a kind of performance or disguise. Butler suggests that, unlike theatrical acting, there is no stable actor or subject that goes about performing gender roles. It is the very act of performing that constitutes who we are.

Butler argues that even as feminists helped to reject the idea that biology is destiny, they continued to assume a gendered identity built upon the essential nature of male and female sexed bodies. She proposes a different kind of politics—not based on a utopian future but on everyday subversive actions that promote “gender trouble.” (Thus, the title of her most influential work, Gender Trouble, published in 1990.)

She suggests it is the subversion, mystification, confusion and proliferation of many genders—not just male and female but everything in between—that would be really liberating. The useful concept of performativity has gone beyond how we think about gender to help us understand oppressive forms of identity, such as nationality.

Gayatri Spivak

The Avalon Foundation Professor of the Humanities at Columbia University, Spivak was born in Calcutta in 1942 and belongs to the first generation of Indian intellectuals after independence. She is most well-known for her work around the “Subaltern,” a stand in for Antonio Gramsci’s “proletarian.” The Subaltern refers to the most dispossessed and disenfranchised, without a voice in society.

In her 1985 article “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Spivak examines how people working for social change unintentionally reinforce political domination, economic exploitation and cultural erasure, the very same tactics employed by colonial empires.

Those in power speak for the Subaltern and allow the dispossessed to form a dependence on Western intellectuals rather than allowing them to speak for themselves. Spivak also points out how Westerners are guilty of assuming a cultural solidarity among groups of ethnic people. Instead, Spivak suggests, we should work against what is keeping the Subaltern down and out, thereby allowing them to speak for themselves.

Spivak is a guerilla-strategist who employs Marxist, feminist, post-colonialist and deconstructionist methods. Her writing echoes Jane Addams’ recognition that social progress “depends as much on the process through which it is secured as the goals.”

Many of the current debates about the audacious character of U.S. imperialistic policies and justifications for regime change are informed by Spivak’s insights. For example, when the United States presents itself as the savior of oppressed women under the Taliban, it uncomfortably revisits the colonial agenda, or in Spivak’s pithy formulation: “White men saving brown women from brown men.”

Sandra Harding

A professor of Social Sciences and Comparative Education at UCLA, Harding was one of the first to raise questions about scientific objectivity and argue that it should be replaced with a “feminist standpoint.” This position argues that the world is socially constructed and made up of multiple realities, and challenges scientists to conduct research from the standpoint of the subjected.

She shows how when one severs the ties to value neutrality it makes it possible to insert responsibility and accountability, missing from the puzzle of why science has up to now been used mainly as a tool of power, as opposed to fighting it.

Harding challenges the scientific community to pay attention to who generates the research questions and how scientists conduct research. Her work helped pave the way for the required inclusion of women and minorities in clinical research. It was only in 1993, with the National Institutes of Health Revitalization Act. that this requirement could be legally enforced.

Catherine A. MacKinnon

A professor of law at the University of Michigan, MacKinnon moves with ease among her jobs as lawyer, teacher, writer, activist and expert on equality. Since the ’70s MacKinnon has been on the frontlines arguing that sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination. Working with Andrea Dworkin, she also conceived of and wrote controversial ordinances recognizing pornography as a violation of civil rights.

MacKinnon points out the constitutional conflict between First Amendment concerns and the Fourteenth Amendment Equal Protection clause. MacKinnon argues that freedom of speech allows more powerful speakers to dominate.

In 1996’s Only Words, she links pornography and hate speech, arguing that both enact and incite abuse. Like the burning of a cross on a lawn, MacKinnon writes, pornography is a threatening and intimidating act of violence and subjugation. Unlike speech that communicates an idea, thought or emotion, pornography legitimates and enforces widespread criminal behavior, such as rape and beatings. As an example, she argues that no one can say “kill” to a trained attack dog and escape prosecution for the ensuing attack on the grounds that she was “only talking.”

MacKinnon also popularized the controversial notion that there are multiple ways of being coerced. Being forced at gunpoint to take part in a pornographic film, for example, is just the more extreme end of a spectrum of coercive means—one that also includes economic coercion that forces women to take part because of a lack of financial options.

Critics see Mackinnon’s work as prelude to so-called “victim-feminism,” where women lack agency for self-determination.

More recently, MacKinnon represented Muslim and Croat Bosnian women—survivors of Serbian genocidal sexual atrocities—and won $745 million in damages from a New York jury. Her arguments pioneered the recognition of rape as an act of genocide under international law. (See Kadic v. Karadzic.)

Dorothy Roberts

Kirkland and Ellis Professor at Northwestern Law University, Roberts has shown there is a deeply embedded racism in one-dimensional interpretations of reproductive rights. While white women have been fighting for their freedom from compulsory motherhood, black women have had to demand their right to procreate at all.

In her brilliant book, Killing the Black Body, she gives a historical overview of black motherhood, beginning when children born to slaves were given to their owners, through current policies that put family caps on welfare recipients. She effectively proves that curtailing black motherhood is part of a historical narrative and chastises the women’s movement for failing to see how distributing Norplant and Depo-Provera to poor women of color can be oppressive.

Roberts also takes on the fertility industry, which caters to middle-class white couples—reporting that when black couples go to fertility doctors they are heavily pressured to adopt. She notes the contradiction of a society that celebrates the births of seven children to a white couple resulting from fertility technologies yet refuses to pay the expenses for additional child born to welfare mothers.

The influence of Robert’s work on race and reproduction is clear in the organization of the March for Women’s Lives, which began with controversy over the inclusion of women of color and resulted in serious coalition building and a change from its previous name, March for Choice.


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Lisa Yun Lee is cofounder of The Public Square, a nonprofit organization that fosters the exchange of ideas about cultural, social and political issues. She also is working on a book about Theodor Adorno for Routledge.

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