Why Intersectional Feminism Is So Important

I think what I enjoy most about being a member of the radical feminist community is that interacting with other individuals who are equally passionate about Women’s Rights ensures that my consciousness remains in a state of constant expansion. Recently, an astute woman pointed out that conformance to prototypical patriarchal paradigms of the female body is not the only shortcoming of liberal feminism. Additionally, this form of “feminism” fails to acknowledge and address issues of intersectionality. I agree and want to develop this concept further here.

Intersectionality is a term coined by critical race theorist Kimberly Williams Crenshaw. The term references the way oppressive institutions (including but not limited to sexism, homophobia, racism, classism, and xenophobia) are interconnected. Because of the interconnected nature of these oppressions, they cannot be analyzed independently of one another. Crenshaw’s theory of intersectionality has been integral to much radical feminist theory and discourse, and the ideology plays a central role in helping women from disparate backgrounds understand the divisive nature of oppression so that they can form political alliances and/or develop personal relationships based on shared humanity. When understood this way, the reason that intersectionality must remain an integral component of the radical feminist movement becomes plain. It helps unite women who were formerly segregated by the pathological, patriarchal narratives that suffuse necrotic ideologies such as white supremacy, nationalism, and compulsory heterosexuality.

(If one took compulsory heterosexuality as the springboard through which to discuss the divisive nature of patriarchy, she might consider the role this institution plays in separating women by causing them to compete for male attention. Also note that this modality places men at the center of female consciousness, thereby dictating that their thoughts and actions are continually directed away from women and towards the male. In discussing how this approach to life has a limiting impact, Nancy B. Howell notes that “In hetero-reality, the richest contributions to my emergence, the contributions from gynaffectionate women, were truncated by an imposed dissociation from female relationships.”)

When we approach feminist theory and our relationships with women through the lens of intersectionality, we can abandon the loathed “power over” system that patriarchy has established for the purpose of ensuring that relationships are predicated on a domination/submission matrix. In patriarchy, this “power over” model involves men dominating women. But within feminism, it can involve certain women dominating other women. A practical example would be heterosexual women dominating lesbians by interpreting lesbianism in terms of pathology. This reality unfolded when heterosexual NOW leader Betty Friedan attempted to mute the voices of lesbian feminist activists by referring to lesbianism as the “Lavender Menace.” In so doing, she metabolized the patriarchal agenda of privileging women who choose to make themselves sexually available to men over women who either consciously decide to prefer women or find themselves innately inclined towards them. In referring to lesbianism as the “Lavender Menace,” Friedan spoke from the perspective of a privileged heterosexual who understood the oppressive heteronormative order and, instead of challenging it by recognizing and respecting the humanity and values of lesbians who had rejected the male-centered imperative, chose to silence them in order to remain in good graces with sexist men who insisted on reifying a social order in which the bodies of women were always available to men. It is this type of approach to feminist theory and praxis that an intersectionalist feminist would abhor and reject.  Rather than centering, naturalizing, and/or privileging one’s own sexual orientation such that the lived experiences and epistemological reference points of others are elided or erased, intersectionalist feminists affirm the humanity and value of women whose knowledge frameworks and modes of living may differ from our own. In approaching feminism this way, we preclude ourselves from subjecting others to the domination/submission schema that results from placing primacy on our own epistemological frameworks and experiences.

Clearly, receptivity to and respect for lesbians is not the only component of intersectionality which works to challenge the “power over” model. Acknowledging the unique role that race can and does play in creating distinct life experiences for women of color is an equally important component of this theory and its resulting praxis. When I think of intersectionality in context of race, I am reminded of Audre Lorde’s important essay “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference.” In this work, Lorde notes that “There is a pretense to a homogeneity of experience covered by the word sisterhood that does not in fact exist” (855). Lorde goes on to cite numerous examples that demonstrate the accuracy of this claim. First, she notes that

“As white women ignore their built-in privilege of whiteness and define woman in terms of their own experience alone, then women of Color become “other,” the outsider whose experience and tradition is too “alien” to comprehend. An example of this is the signal absence of the experience of women of Color as a resource for women’s studies courses” (856).

Further demonstrating the validity of her claim, Lorde notes that

“…white women face the pitfall of being seduced into joining the oppressor under the pretense of sharing power. This possibility does not exist in the same way for women of Color. The tokenism that is sometimes extended to us is not an invitation to join power, our racial “otherness” is a visible reality that makes that quite clear. For white women there is a wider range of pretended choices and rewards for identifying with patriarchal power and its tools” (857).

These are just two of many epistemological and experiential disparities that exist between white women and black women. Feminists who are serious about building woman-identified communities where women of all racial backgrounds can share humanity and love one another without mental distortion or pretense must acknowledge the role that white supremacist capitalist patriarchy has played in creating distinct and oftentimes diametrically opposed forms of fragmented subjectivity for white and black women.

Even as we acknowledge the role that racism plays in creating a world in which women of color and white women experience the world disparately, we need not ignore the fact that our experiences under patriarchy are oftentimes somewhat (or even very) similar. This idea becomes plain at numerous points, including what may be andocracy’s favorite mode of dehumanizing women: objectification. Poets such as Sylvia Plath have done an exemplary job of demonstrating the role that institutions such as compulsory heterosexuality have played in reducing women to objects whose primary purpose is to serve men and “be sexy.” Plath displays this phallic social schema through poems like “The Applicant.” Here, a woman is described as “a thing” (l. 7) that will be given to a man. This to-be wife will “bring teacups and roll away headaches” (l. 12). The servile component of the woman’s personhood is coincided by the objectified dimension of her identity, and this fact becomes plain when the woman-wife is described with the phrase “a living doll” (l. 33). The sexualized nature of the objectification is underscored when the speaker informs the male applying for a wife that “You have an eye, it’s an image” (l. 37). This reduction of women to servile sex objects is replicated all over the world, and this reality becomes evident in Geraldine Heng’s important essay “A Great Way to Fly”: Nationalism, the State, and the Varieties of Third-World Feminism.” There, Heng references the Singapore government’s exploitation of maids before going on to note that

“More invisibly, but just as exploitatively, state-owned or state-affiliated airline industries throughout Southeast Asia (and South and East Asian countries) routinely sell the sexualized images and personal charm and services of their female flight attendants, in the highly competitive and highly profitable commercial air-travel market, through aggressive global marketing and media advertising, for the profit of the national coffers” (863).

Whether the sexualization and subservience of women materializes through the political institution of heterosexual marriage or a state-run airline, the theme of objectifying a woman for profit and pleasure remains strong. Clearly, the continuities that exist between white and Asian women who experience sex-based objectification under patriarchy do not elide the reality of distinctions based on factors such as the racialization of womanhood and collective vs. private ownership of women in phallism. Yet the distinctions do not negate the fact that phallocracy continually creates a world in which women of disparate racial backgrounds can experience a similar mode of dehumanization.

Despite the negativity indigenous to discourse regarding the necrotic impact of patriarchy (which is indeed a process of necrosis given the role it plays in turning subjects into objects), it is important to acknowledge the realm of positivity that is feminism continually suffusing itself through (and contending with) the androcentric world. As noted by Joyce Trebilcot, “for me, patriarchy is always present there is no “pure” wimmin’s space (As if in compensation, when wimmin are present there is no pure patriarchy-we are always violating and sabotaging it” (3, Dyke Methods or Principles for the Discovery/Creation of the Withstanding). Adopting an intersectional approach to feminism makes this violation and sabotage of patriarchy more effective because it abrades the divisions created by sexist men who who want women to see themselves as members of distinct, hierarchical classes rather than individuals who share humanity and can collectively organize against oppression.

Works Cited

Heng, Geraldine. “A Great Way to Fly”: Nationalism, the State, and the Varieties of Third-  World Feminism.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. by Julie Rivkin and Michael  Ryan. Blackwell Publishing: 2004. Pg. 861-881.

Howell, Nancy. “Radical Relatedness and Feminist Separatism.” http://www.religion-  online.org/showarticle.asp?title=2773.

Lorde, Audre. “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference.” Literary Theory:  An Anthology. Edited by Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Blackwell Publishing: 2004.  Pg.     854-860.

Plath, Sylvia. “The Applicant.” Poems from the Women’s Movement. Ed. by Honor Moore.  The Library of America: 2009.

Trebilcot, Joyce. “Dyke Methods or Principles for the Discovery/Creation of the  Withstanding.” Hypatia, no. 2, 1988, p. 1. EBSCOhost, ezproxy.snhu.edu/login?  url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?  direct=true&db=edsjsr&AN=edsjsr.3809948&site=eds-live&scope=site.

 

 

 

Why Intersectional Feminism Is So Important

Is Liberal Feminism Feminism? No.

As I study radical feminism more and more, I feel increasingly detached from and disgusted with liberal feminism. Herein lies the realm where male entitlement to female bodies and the ongoing objectification of women by men are turned into affirmative acts that progressive men and women can engage in without qualms or regret. To deepen one’s awareness of the role that liberal feminism plays in upholding patriarchy, consider the fact that this “movement” gave rise to the ideology and praxis of self-objectification. Although understood and defined broadly, self-objectification is essentially about women consciously, “independently” deciding to represent their bodies as a site of erotic titillation through corporeal styling or the positioning of the physical form in a manner that draws attention to specific parts (typically the breasts and/or vagina). While many liberal “feminists” have argued that self-objectification is empowering, what the ideology and praxis really demonstrates is that the necrotic project of patriarchy (turning a thinking subject into an inanimate, imitative object) has been completed successfully.

Yet the object-not-subject ideology advanced by liberal feminism is not the only problematic component of this system of thought. Another issue is “body positivity.” In many cases, body positivity is self-objectification and sexualization. Radical feminists can see this when we are exposed to images of women with their legs splayed only to hear “feminists” comment that the visual representation is about a woman “taking control of her sexuality” or “feeling good about her body.” This is clearly nonsense and there appears to be general consensus about it amongst radical feminists. Yet liberal feminism’s ongoing obsession with “body positivity” seems to have gained legitimacy and acceptance as an integral component of the Women’s Movement within dominant discourse. It shouldn’t, and the reason is fairly simple. There is a sometimes subtle, sometimes salient difference between the body-affirming ideas promoted by strong Second Wave Era feminists and the (more often than not) vapid, commercialized, image-based versions of body positivity that are continually linked to liberal feminism. As noted by Double XX Howl in her important essay “Censored Conversations In The Hallways Of Academia,” it was during the feminist revolution of the 1970s that “women learned to say these tabooed words out loud: vagina, clitoris, and cervix” (445).  Articulating the reality of the materiality of the female body was an act of liberation and defiance in a patriarchal world centered around reverence for the phallus in conjunction with the demonization of a woman’s physical form. Evidence of this demonization abounds, but I’ll cite one example to legitimate my claim here. In “The First Sex: In The Beginning, We Were All Created Female,” Monica Sjoo and Barbara Mor point out that “In one not-too-ancient dictionary, “clitoris” was defined as a “rudimentary organ,” while “masculinity” equaled “the Cosmic generative force”…!” (7, 8). They go on to point out that “Freud dismissed the clitoris as an undeveloped masculine organ and defined original libido as male” (8). Second wave feminists (and the radical feminists of today) rejected this male-centered, woman-demonizing ideology by affirming all aspects of the female body as important and desirable while also promoting the development of an autonomous female sexuality in which the phallus has no place.

The body positivity movement advanced by liberal feminism seems less substantive. The dominant discourse within this realm appears to be about affirming the existence and beauty of multiple distinct body types such that neither a “thin” nor “full” frame is ridiculed or condemned. Yet the conversation doesn’t seem to get any deeper. Thus as noted by  Arwa Mahdawi in The Guardian, “Liberal feminism as practiced today seems to focus largely on issues of your right not to wear makeup or your right to wear a bikini whatever your size.” I agree with Mahdawi and would go on to argue that if liberal feminists want to claim that their ideology and modality is substantive, the focus needs to shift. Radical, body-affirming feminists such as Gloria Steinem and Robin Morgan have already done an exemplary job of demonstrating that the female corporeal form is a political site through which the oppression of women is perpetuated. In their essay “The International Crime of Genital Mutilation,” the writers demonstrate the ongoing attack on female bodies by stating that “Not only have American and European women experienced the psychic clitoridectomy that was legitimized by Freud, but Western nineteenth-century medical texts also proclaim genital mutilation as an accepted treatment for “nymphomania,” “hysteria,” masturbation, and other nonconforming behavior” (318). They globalize the issue of mutilating female bodies by  noting that “…international health authorities find the most extensive evidence of such customs on the African continent and the Arabian peninsula. The majority of mutilations take place without anesthetic at home (in the city or village), but many are now performed in hospitals as approved procedures…” (318). Why aren’t body positive liberal feminists discussing the reality of women all over the world having their clitorises removed? I have my own theory: liberal feminism is not feminism but rather women accepting patriarchal edicts regarding male entitlement to objectify, control, and mutilate female bodies. Thus for liberal feminists to move beyond the “playful,” “fun” rhetoric of self-objectification and into a substantive analysis of how a clitoridectomy reifies male power by keeping female bodies under the control of men would be heresy.

With all of this in mind, I think it’s time for women who fight for women to stop calling liberal feminists feminists. Women who fight for self-objectification while eliding serious issues of the female body such as the erasure or annihilation of the clitoris are not fighting for women. They are fighting for the phallus, or “doing the work of the patriarchy.”

Works Cited

Howl, Double XX. “Censored Conversations In The Hallways Of Academia,” Female Erasure,   ed. by Ruth Barrett, Tidal Time  Publishing, 2016, pp. 443-448.

Mahdawi, Arwa. “Kellyanne Conway and liberal feminists: two sides of the same coin.”  The Guardian. 9 December 2016.  https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/dec/09/kellyanne-conway-liberal-  feminism-shortfalls-politics-amy-schumer-lena-dunham. Accessed 20 March 2017.

Sjoo, Monica and Barbara Mor. “The First Sex: In The Beginning, We Were All Created  Female.” Female Erasure, ed. by Ruth Barrett, Tidal Time Publishing, 2016, pp. 5-17.

Steinem, Gloria. Outrageous Acts And Everyday Rebellions. New York: 1995.

 

 

 

Is Liberal Feminism Feminism? No.

Dehumanization in Rachel Moran’s Paid For: My Journey Through Prostitution

I have begun reading Rachel Moran’s Paid For: My Journey Through Prostitution and have much to say about it. As soon as the text arrived in the mail, I knew I would read it in entirety but also found myself flipping through it and skimming various parts first in order to attain a general understanding of the types of topics Moran was discussing. While I was drawn to many of the subjects she covered, I was particularly intrigued with her analysis of how the male psyche dehumanizes women in prostitution. Moran discussed three distinct types of psychic dehumanization that can transpire. I will discuss these three views briefly here.

The first type of dehumanization Moran discusses is “The view of the prostituted as non-humans…” (105). Moran’s awareness that this mental perception existed was crystallized when she observed men who would look at her “in stupefied astonishment” when she objected to being “roughly manhandled” (105). It was this type of objection to objectification and violence which resulted in the men experiencing a “slow-dawning realisation that this was in fact a human being they were mauling” (105). It is quite telling that the male psyche can be so inundated in the ideology of female objectification that evidence of a woman’s subjectivity (whether it materializes through objection to violence, independent thought, or some other activity which conforms to conventional conceptions of humanity) comes as a complete shock.

The second type of dehumanization Moran discusses is “where a man is conscious of your humanity but willfully chooses to ignore it” (105). Moran argues that this is the most commonly held attitude men maintain regarding prostitutes, and I would take this assessment as a point of departure to argue that this is the patriarchy’s dominant discourse on all women. In her important essay “The Girls And The Grasses,” Lierre Keith discusses both male knowledge of the humanity of women as well as their ongoing willingness to treat these human beings as objects. Specifically, she notes that “They know we aren’t objects, that we have nerves that feel and flesh that bruises” (290). Nevertheless, these knowing males still subject women to various acts of dehumanization, one of which is female genital mutilation (FGM).

As a radical feminist, I can see this diametric opposition (the reality of female subjectivity and the male fantasy of female objectification suppressing that reality) being played out in every sector of society. Beyond the realm of prostitution, I see this necrotic project attaining primacy when pornographic pictures of women are produced. Moran discusses this practice upon noting that:

“I was photographed pornographically. That is a difficult thing for me to write. I have thought about that, about how it would feel for me to look at those pictures now. It would hurt me to see them and to know that others would see them. I know that. But it would also be educational and worthwhile, because I am quite sure I could contort my own face to resemble the dummy image of female sexuality required of me as I shifted from one pose to the next, all the while steeling my mind against an almost tangibly present sense of degradation. I think it might be enlightening for people to see that that face can be matched to these words” (64).

Here, the radical feminist reader can see the necrotic project of female objectification in full effect as female subjects are forced to enact a corporeal modality in which their bodies represent a “dummy image.” This is the object-not-subject, being-not-thinking mode of truncated, synthetic sexuality which the phallus (men) continually coerce women into adopting. I really appreciated this aspect of Moran’s narrative because it illustrates her awareness that this image, although perhaps real, is fictive in the sense that it does not reflect the full range of her being. That fuller range is exemplified through her writing, and the reader who juxtaposes the face from the pornographic images she had to make to the writing she has produced about this reality will indeed be enlightened. The enlightenment is knowing that the patriarchal project is a process of reduction. Within it, women are caught in an ontological web of being what sexist men call “sex” or “sexy.” The web precludes women from independent thought given that they are merely acting out the perverted fantasies of the male psyche. It is a realm of merely being what a man has told you to be (object), not actively thinking about what you could become (subject). Writing, on the other hand, is an enterprise that inverts the perverted male modality as the speaking subject analyzes and interprets the reality imposed upon her. It is a process of moving from nonthinking object to thinking subject.

The third type of dehumanization Moran discusses is men who are caught up in the necrotic act of “indulging their desire to reduce the humanity of women” (105). Moran elaborates on this reality by asserting that it constitutes a process of reducing the woman “to nothing” (106). This process can transpire through a wide range of humiliating sex acts, and I would go on to argue that it also takes place outside of the “sexual” realm. For example, the reduction of women to nothing transpires when their right to exist peacefully within their bodies is denied. This ongoing attack against female bodies can be seen on multiple planes. Lierre Keith discusses it upon noting that “There are entire villages in India where all the women only have one kidney. That’s because their husbands have sold the other one” (292). Here, the humanity associated with having a body is denied women as a specific corporeal component is extracted for the purpose of generating wealth for men. The ongoing fragmentation and removal of female body parts is just one element of the continual war being raged against women. These wars against the female body are a process of reducing subjects to nothing in a cultural context where humanity is defined in terms of being able to exist as a discrete entity without having one’s body disturbed or destroyed by others. Becoming nothing in a society predicated upon this value system is about one’s body existing for the perverse titillation or economic gain of others, and this is the process men put women through via the aforementioned practices.

Moran’s assessments regarding the dehumanization that transpires in prostitution are astute, and I think it is important for radical feminists to draw connections between this specific mode of phallic agency and other androcentric modalities that have gained primacy in contemporary cultures.

Works Cited

Keith, Lierre. “The Girls And The Grasses.” Female Erasure ed. by Ruth Barrett. Tidal Time  Publishing, 2016.

Moran, Rachel. Paid For: My Journey Through Prostitution. W.W. Norton & Company, 2013.

Dehumanization in Rachel Moran’s Paid For: My Journey Through Prostitution

The Empire Writes Back: Erasing and Refacing England in Wide Sargasso Sea

Although there are numerous narratives which challenge the colonial presence and power that gained precedence during the 20th century, Jean Rhys’s important novel Wide Sargasso Sea stands out as a text that critiques and condemns colonialism in a very conspicuous, clever manner. While there are several scenes in the novel which work to indict the idea and reality of colonialism, Christophine’s conversation with Mr. X is singular in its ability to challenge and ultimately negate the signification and substance of England, a sociopolitical sphere which represents imperial power and the subjugation of the masses. In a telling conversation between Christophine and Mr. X, the former asserts that she is not certain England exists and goes on to imply that the place is populated by lying thieves. These acts of erasing and then refacing England as a lackluster place function as an inversion of the prototypical colonial system, one in which the oppressed are negated through the imposition of various dehumanizing philosophies and sociocultural procedures which efface their existence and identity. In this inversion, the empire writes back with a linguistic reconstruction of an idealized imperial power which renders its own existence and personhood null.

As implied by the narrative itself, the invocation of England functions as a signifier of an imperial sphere that purports colonialist ideologies and praxis. Moreover, this imperial realm is idealized in the mind of Mr. X. This idea becomes plain when one considers Mr. X’s reflections on the land: “I have been too unhappy, I thought, it cannot last, being so unhappy, it would kill you. I will be a different person when I live in England and different things will happen to me….England, rosy pink in the geography book map, but on the page opposite the words are closely crowded, heavy looking. Exports, coals, iron, wool” (66). Through this delineation of Mr. X’s conceptions of England, the reader understands that he views the land as a sphere that can induce happiness while also recognizing its ability to generate economic wealth through exports, coals, iron, and wool. Shortly after this delineation, however, the positive image of England maintained in the mind of Mr. X is undermined by Christophine’s assertion that the place might not exist. After Mr. X notes that he would like to travel there, Christophine responds with a pointed question: “You think there is such a place?” (67). When he openly questions her assertion that England might not exist, Christophine justifies her skepticism by noting: “I never see the damn place, how I know?” (67). She goes on to note “I know what I see with my eyes and I never see it” (67). In questioning whether England is a reality, Christophine engages in a textually significant act of erasure which demonstrates that, just as an imperial power can negate the identity and importance of the people it subjugates, the subjugated others can delegitimate the oppressor’s authority and actuality by insinuating that its physical sphere of power might not exist.

In addition to engaging in an act of erasure which inverts the oppressor’s power by asserting that the physical land which signifies its presence might be fictive, Christophine negates the colonialist dynamism associated with England by reconstructing its identity, face. Rather than conforming to Mr. X’s understanding of the land as a powerful sphere replete with economic vitality, England becomes a sphere populated by thieves and liars. Specifically, Christophine asserts that she cannot trust the image of England presented by its inhabitants when she asks “Is this place like they tell us?” (67) This interrogation doubles as an insinuation that England’s representatives and advocates are likely presenting a false, elevated depiction of what the land is like to outsiders. In short, Christophine insinuates that England’s people are liars. Yet the reconstruction of the nation’s face doesn’t stop there. The immoral identity Christophine has constructed thus far moves forward when she asserts that the people of the land are thieves. In so doing, she notes that “I hear it cold to freeze your bones and they thief your money, clever like the devil. You have money in your pocket, you look again and bam! No money” (67). This inversion of England’s idealized identity culminates in Christophine asking Mr. X why he would want to travel to “this cold thief place” (67). Thus England and its people no longer exist as the embodiment of venerable power, but are now the face of evil and immorality.

Clearly, Christophine’s erasing and refacing England is not left unchallenged by the imperial power that Mr. X advocates and comes to represent.  In fact, his embodiment of colonial ideas becomes plain through his summation of Christophine’s personhood in a manner that belittles her race and gender. In an internal interrogation during which he questions how authoritative her words regarding England could be, he asks himself: “How can she know the best thing for me to do, this ignorant, obstinate old negro woman, who is not certain if there is such a place as England?” By including this demeaning, dehumanizing interrogation in the scene during which Christophine erases and refaces England, Rhys demonstrates that the contention between oppressor and oppressed remains prevalent and powerful.

As made plain by the discourse between Christophine and Mr. X regarding the existence of England, their dialogue functions as a representation of the empire writing back to the imperial powers which negate the identities of the individuals it subjugates. Through the character of Christophine, Rhys implies that the imperial England may be a fictive mental construct rather than a sociopolitical reality to be respected and revered. Rhys goes on to implicate and then ultimately incriminate England as a sphere of lying thieves through Christophine’s assertions about the clever devils who will steal one’s money. In so doing, the author expertly dismantles England’s powerful, pristine personhood by writing back with a sophisticated form of flack that involves questioning the land’s existence before implying that, if that land is real, the people that represent the place are depraved. Expertly erased and refaced through Christophine’s commentary and criticisms, England undergoes a mode of negation similar to that experienced by subjugated people trapped in the colonial web.

Works Cited

Rhys, Jean. Wide Sargasso Sea. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999.

The Empire Writes Back: Erasing and Refacing England in Wide Sargasso Sea

Jonathan Alexander and Jacqueline Rhodes’s “Flattening Effects: Composition’s Multicultural Imperative and the Problem of Narrative Coherence”: A Review

Although there are a plethora of articles that incorporate cutting edge, culturally relevant discourse about the politics of multiculturalism in composition classrooms, Jonathan Alexander and Jacqueline Rhodes’s piece “Flattening Effects: Composition’s Multicultural Imperative and the Problem of Narrative Coherence” is uniquely compelling. In this article, Alexander and Rhodes argue that one of the primary problems of contemporary composition classrooms is that the pedagogical process “…is rather bland, emphasizing commonalities that prevent us from perceiving and analyzing critical differences” (431). Thus rather than recognizing and responding to the power of celebrating difference, these pedagogical modalities induce what the authors refer to as a “flattening effect” (431). This flattening effect involves emphasizing commonalities and shared humanity in a manner that elides or effaces the reality of otherness. Alexander and Rhodes identify this otherness in terms of “radical alterity,” which they define as “the critical differences that exist among different people’s and different groups’ experiences of the world” (431). Whether it manifests in subtle or salient pedagogical praxis, the erosion of radical alterity has the debilitating effect of precluding us “from perceiving and analyzing critical differences” (431). The authors go on to point out that any critical multicultural pedagogy must incorporate both an acknowledgment of our shared humanity as well as a clear, conspicuous recognition of our radical alterity. Additionally, Alexander and Rhodes emphasize the importance of recognizing that identities marked by difference must not be reduced to spheres of decipherable, colonizing generalizations which incorporate the idea that the subjugated subject is thoroughly understood. Rather, the notion that identities are often laden with incommensurability and unknowability should be emphasized in the composition classroom in order to preclude individuals within the academic setting from assuming that they possess exhaustive understanding of others. In delineating/defending the importance of exploring and engaging issues of radical alterity, Alexander and Rhodes argue for a more inclusive, open-minded, open-ended approach to language instruction in composition classrooms.

As multicultural pedagogues with more than twenty years of experience in the field, Jonathan Alexander and Jacqueline Rhodes possess extensive knowledge about the politics of contemporary composition classrooms. Alexander is a professor of English and campus writing coordinator. Additionally, he is the director of the Center for Excellence in Writing and Communication at the University of California, Irvine. He is the author of several books, including Literacy, Sexuality, Pedagogy: Theory and Practice for Composition Studies. Alexander is also the recipient of the Charles Moran Award for Distinguished Contributions to the Field of Computers and Composition. Like Alexander, Rhodes has cultivated a formidable career in the field of composition studies. As a professor of English at California State University, San Bernardino, Rhodes’s work is rooted in analyzing the intersections of rhetoric, technology, and materiality. She is also the author of Radical Feminism, Writing, and Critical Agency: From Manifesto to Modem. Additionally, her work has been published in several venues, including College Composition and Communication, JAC: A Journal of Composition Theory, Computers and Composition, Enculturation, and Rhetoric Review. It is also important to note that Alexander and Rhodes are personally invested in the professional research they produce regarding the pedagogical world. In drawing attention to this reality, the pedagogues state: “As a gay man and a lesbian, respectively, we are particularly interested in the taming of queerness in the composition classroom” (431). In addition to exploring the scope and signification of queerness as a sphere of radical alterity, Alexander and Rhodes examine the role that identity sectors such as race and sexual orientation play in constructing realms of otherness that stand in contradiction to the ideology of “shared humanity” that currently proliferates ostensibly progressive multicultural compositional classrooms.

To legitimate their claim that modern day multicultural classrooms are structured in a manner that erodes the reality of radical alterity, Alexander and Rhodes draw attention to the way that narratives about queerness are deployed within the classroom environment. Specifically, the authors argue that “Inclusive narratives of queerness used in many composition courses engage simultaneously in a flattening effect and a flattening of affect—that is, they elide engagement with material differences in the queer experience of the world, both socially and somatically” (431, 432). In making this claim, the authors reemphasize their original argument that the perceived need to promote an ideology of “shared humanity” amongst students of all backgrounds in the composition classroom works to denigrate or deny the reality of difference.  Alexander and Rhodes go on to note that these differences exist while also arguing that recognizing and analyzing them is important. They cite key differences between the actualized existence of heterosexuals and homosexuals to make this idea plain. Specifically, they argue that “…our difference in our humanity is key, particularly in addressing some systemic violence against queers. If Jonathan and Jackie are in danger of being assaulted, it is because they are not straight. He is a queer man; she, a lesbian” (438). Yet in a multiculturalism composition classroom predicated on the idea that emphasizing shared humanity is more important than analyzing radical alterity and difference, the salient interstices between heterosexual and homosexual existence would likely be ignored. In explaining why this flattening effect tends to come into being, the authors argue that it “arises out of the unexamined assumption that “understanding” and then “tolerance” or even “respect” are predicated on “identity” (438). In elaborating on what this limiting concept of identity consists of, Alexander and Rhodes argue that “By identity, we mean not just the acknowledgment that other identities exist, but that those identities are, in essence, somehow identical to (or identifiable with) your own” (438). Within this problematic schema, the need to make everyone alike in an attempt to foster a sense of common humanity works to diminish the reality of difference such that the unique, specific psychosocial and sociocultural realities that individuals marked by radical alterity experience are not recognized or respected.

While the importance of rendering difference an integral component of discourse in the composition classroom is a primary point of the article, the authors also take time to emphasize the fundamental need to make the recognition of incommensurability and unknowability a central element of pedagogical ideology and praxis (440). Incommensurability is a term used to connote the reality that radical alterity creates an interstice between the individual who has been rendered “other” and the person who maintains a position marked by normativity. Unknowability is the idea that there are aspects of an individual’s identity that can never be fully grasped or understood.  In discussing these matters, Alexander and Rhodes note that “If Jonathan talks about his open marriage, then some interlocutors will hit a roadblock in what had been our shared, mutual understanding of marriage in this communicative exchange. Suddenly, his difference as a gay man who is married seems perverse, if not even unaccountable, unrecognizable” (440). The authors go on to note that this schema involves reaching “…a point of incommensurability in which the categories collapse, the bridging category “married man” unable to sustain the weight of a queerness whose difference cannot be accounted for—or fixed—within another category” (440). Here, the authors demonstrate how spheres of radical alterity (such as ostensibly deviant sexual/marital modalities) become spaces in which there is no common basis or “bridge” between the individual who occupies a position of marginality and those whose sexual and marital identities reflect a normative, mainstream ideology and praxis.

One of the greatest strengths of this article is the extensive research it includes. The work is greatly amplified through Alexander and Rhodes’s engagement and analysis of research findings by a wide range of pedagogues who have extensive knowledge about the inner workings and contradictions of composition classroom politics. For example, Alexander and Rhodes engage the work of notable writer Henry A. Giroux upon noting his assertion that there exists a strong need for the engagement of multiple, disparate narratives in the classroom setting. Alexander and Rhodes also reference significant suppositions submitted by renown cultural theorist bell hooks, citing her call for an educational modality capable of transforming consciousness and promoting free expression to expound upon their own arguments regarding the importance of enabling students to use the composition classroom as a medium through which to document their experiences as subjects marked by radical alterity.

While Alexander and Rhodes’s article offers a thorough analysis of the ideological shortcomings that currently stifle acknowledgment and interrogation of difference, the text did have several significant shortcomings. One of the most salient shortcomings was the scant discourse regarding the strengths of pedagogical approaches that involve promoting a sense of shared humanity amongst students from different racial, political, sexual, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Although the writers acknowledge that the promotion of shared humanity is designed to promote mutual respect amongst and between students who occupy disparate epistemological and experiential spaces, they do not delve into how this strategy can function as a gateway into substantive interrogations regarding the shape, scope, and significance of difference.

In considering Alexander and Rhodes’s article as a cohesive whole, the reader should note that while the piece offers a plethora of important insights regarding pressing pedagogical issues, a careful reading of the work engenders a wide range of importunate questions. In fact, the authors themselves pose some. Specifically, Alexander and Rhodes ask: “What kinds of writing assignments might emerge out of acknowledging contradiction and irreducibility, in both discourse and in lived, embodied, material realities?” (445). Other questions posed by the authors include: “How do we engage, in and through writing, the “partial,” the senses of difference that are not reducible to simplistic understanding?” and “…how do we teach in the gray areas between polarized understandings of difference?” (445). Because each of these questions engages how issues of difference can be explored within the classroom in a manner that incorporates acknowledgement/interrogation of radical alterity, a relevant article from which pertinent answers might be attained is Lisa Delpit’s “The Politics of Teaching Literate Discourse.” In this article, Delpit explores the role that race plays as a sphere of radical alterity that can preclude African-American children from excelling in composition classrooms that overtly or covertly privilege whiteness. Delpit also offers practical solutions that can empower individuals who occupy spheres of difference to profit from these traditional educational settings while maintaining a positive, profound sense of subjectivity.

By offering readers a clear understanding of the way that pedagogical approaches centering an ideology of shared humanity impair the process of acknowledging and respecting the reality of radical alterity, Alexander and Rhodes present the reader with a strong argument that legitimates the need for practical change in the composition classroom. And in legitimizing the importance of making the educational setting a sphere for transformation and transgression that leads to enlightenment and illumination, the authors provide their audience with the impetus necessary to provoke positive change and progress.

Works Cited

Alexander, Jonathan and Jacqueline Rhodes. “Flattening Effects: Composition’s  Multicultural Imperative And the Problem of Narrative Coherence.” College Composition  and Communication, Vol. 65, No. 3, February 2014.

Delpit, Lisa. “The Politics of Teaching Literate Discourse.” The Norton Book of  Composition Studies. Ed. Susan Miller. 1st ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 2009. 1311-1320.  Print.

 

 

Jonathan Alexander and Jacqueline Rhodes’s “Flattening Effects: Composition’s Multicultural Imperative and the Problem of Narrative Coherence”: A Review

The Arrogant Eye vs. The Loving Eye in Marilyn Frye’s The Politics Of Reality

As soon as I finished Ruth Barrett’s Female Erasure, I began reading Marilyn Frye’s The Politics Of Reality. I love this text and will probably blog about several distinct aspects of it over the next couple of months. One of the ideas I found particularly intriguing was Frye’s juxtaposition of what she defines as the arrogant eye and the loving eye. Some thoughts on this:

The Arrogant Eye vs. The Loving Eye

The juxtaposition of the arrogant eye and the loving eye transpires in the chapter entitled “In And Out Of Harm’s Way: Arrogance And Love.” In contextualizing the concept of the arrogant eye, Frye first notes that the Bible defines women as entities created to be man’s helper. She then goes on to assert that “This captures in myth Western Civilization’s primary answer to the philosophical question of man’s place in nature: everything that is is resource for man’s exploitation. With this world view, men see with arrogant eyes which organize everything seen with reference to themselves and their own interests” (67). She goes on to note that “The arrogant perceiver does not countenance the possibility that the Other is independent, indifferent” (67). I view this interpretation as accurate and the veracity of the assessment becomes plain upon considering things such as the etymological underpinnings of words like “woman.” As many feminists have pointed out, the term has been used to reference both a female servant and a wife. Both terms define women in relation to men, and each one positions the female subject as servile to one or more men.Within this framework, women are not independent beings whose own needs and values render them indifferent to the world of men. Rather, their lives are structured such that the whims and will of men are central to their thoughts and actions.

I think it’s important to note that in addition to ensuring that the arrogant eye impacts not only the lens through which women see men, but also the way they perceive themselves. This reality becomes plain when the reader considers how the arrogant eye imposes a system of objectification on women. Frye references this reality upon noting that “Women experience the coerciveness of this kind of “influence” when men perversely impose sexual meanings on our every movement” (68). The ongoing objectification imposed upon women frequently causes them to eventually naturalize the imposition such that they become objects in their own eyes. Artist/philosopher John Berger draws attention to this upon noting that:

“men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object-and most particularly an object of vision: a sight” (Ways Of Seeing, 47).

As Berger demonstrates, the reality of men objectifiying women results in members of the latter group internalizing the objectification and subsequently altering material reality such that their self-presentation draws attention to the corporeal form. Monique Wittig references this by-product of phallic power by pointing out that “Wherever they are, whatever they do (including working in the public sector), they are seen (and made) sexually available to men, and they, breasts, buttocks, costume, must be visible” (7). The reality of the male gaze perversely altering a woman’s self-concepts and self-representation such that she is reduced to a sexualized object is just one ugly outcome of the arrogant eye’s existence and agency.

After discussing the arrogant eye, Frye goes on to explain an alternate system of relations: the loving eye. She begins by noting that “The loving eye knows the independence of the other…It is the eye of one who knows that to know the seen, one must consult something other than one’s own will and interests and fears and imagination. One must look at the thing. One must look and listen and check and question” (75). Thus the difference between the arrogant eye and loving eye becomes plain. While the former defines reality and relationships in context of the self while refusing to recognize that the Other has an identity independent of this system of relations, the latter recognizes and continually responds to the fact that the Other has a distinct will, proclivities, and inclinations that may not parallel one’s own. In elaborating on the operations and import of the loving eye, Frye notes that it “does not make the object of perception into something edible, does not try to assimilate it, does not reduce it to the size of the seer’s desire, fear and imagination, and hence does not have to simplify. It knows the complexity of the other as something which will forever present new things to be known” (76).

Exactly. I would elaborate on this assessment by arguing that a juxtaposition of the arrogant eye and the loving eye reveals that the distinction between the two is nonrecognition vs. recognition. Specifically, the arrogant self refuses to acknowledge the Other as anything except an appendage to its own will, which is ultimately objectification. On the other hand, the loving eye ensures that the Other is placed in the sphere of subjectivity through a process of recognition which involves identifying and acknowledging aspects of the individual which are unique and distinct from the self.

 

The Arrogant Eye vs. The Loving Eye in Marilyn Frye’s The Politics Of Reality

Two Must-Read Feminist Essays From Female Erasure

Now that I have finally finished the anthology Female Erasure, I am thinking critically about the wide range of ideas and arguments made in the text. While every single essay was important and information-rich, two stood out as particularly effective in offering readers feminist insights capable of altering epistemological frameworks or simply expanding one’s level of consciousness. Of all the essays in the anthology, these are the two that impacted me the most:

Lierre Keith’s “The Girls And The Grasses”

I will likely be quoting this text for the rest of my life. Keith provides readers with an excellent analysis of numerous issues that are still integral to radical feminist discourse, including what gender is and how it impacts women. In discussing it, Keith notes that:

“Gender is who gets to be human and who gets to be hurt. That has to be made clear because men know what they are capable of. They know. They know the sadism they’ve built into their own sex. Do it to her, is what they say to each other. Not to me, the human being. But her, the object, the thing. And “her” has to be obvious, visually and ideologically. See, there she is, unable to walk. See, there she is, on display. Or there she is, secluded and covered, for your eyes only” (292).

What I found uniquely compelling about this definition of gender is that in addition to demonstrating how this class system legitimates violence against women, it shows the reader how homosocial interaction is integral to the regime. Specifically, gender creates an epistemological realm in which men are conceptualized as subjects while women are relegated to the sphere of object. Additionally, men are taught to acknowledge themselves as subjects who share humanity and can thus bond in a formulation one might conceptualize in terms of Buber’s “I-thou” schema. This man-to-man “I-thou” schema is diametrically opposed to the man-to-woman “I-it” schema in which the subjectivity or humanity of women is not recognized, thereby creating an experiential realm in which women can be abused through acts of male violence such as rape, domestic violence, prostitution, pornography, etc. It is these two antithetical epistemological/experiential configurations (“I-thou” vs. “I-it”) which engender a system of relations between men in which violence against women becomes an act through which they bond and build communities. This fact becomes plain through Keith’s insightful reference to how men tell themselves, “Do it to her” (female object) and “Not to me” (male subject). This practice of encouraging one another to harm women in sport-like fashion keeps the culture of misogyny and perverse male bonding alive and active.

Patricia McFadden’s “Why Women’s Spaces Are Critical To Feminist Autonomy”

This essay is important for numerous reasons, one of which is that McFadden shows readers how political space is and why women must seize it as a resource through which to accomplish the agenda of the Women’s Movement. She defines the agenda as “the emancipation of all women from patriarchal bondage and exploitation” (312). To contextualize her argument regarding why women need separate spaces to accomplish this objective, McFadden first notes how

“space is gendered and highly politicized as a social resource in all societies. Throughout the known human narrative, certain spaces have been culturally, religiously and politically marked as either “male” or “female,” and we know that in terms of the latter spaces, these were and still are largely linked to women’s breeding and feeding functions in all human societies, without exception. The spaces we refer to as public are assumed to be male, and for centuries men have excluded women from the public where all the key decisions relating to power are deliberated and implemented” (310).

This assessment is important for numerous reasons, one of which is that it demonstrates an important historical reality: many men have had no issue with denying women access to space they define as exclusively male for the purpose of purporting patriarchal power. To further the reader’s understanding of the politicization of space, McFadden goes on to point out that “…across human time, those spaces that were feminized were also considered the least important; they were and still are places where women functioned through the benevolence of males, but which they never owned and still do not have entitlement to if they live in close intimate relationships with adult males” (310). After drawing the reader’s attention to the gendered, politicized import of space, McFadden states that “the Women’s Movement as a political, ideological, activist and structural space must remain just that: a woman-only space” (310). Right.

In addition to providing readers with a substantive explanation for why woman-only space is important and imperative, McFadden offers her audience with a clear, convincing analysis of why allowing men into spheres set aside to advance the feminist agenda is problematic and harmful. Specifically, she notes that

“To argue for men’s inclusion into women’s political and structural spaces is not only fundamentally heterosexist; it also serves an old nationalistic claim that women need to take care of men, no matter where they are located and or what they are engaged with. This claim is inherently premised on the assumption that women who are not attached to or associated with a man are dangerous, rampant women who must be stopped. That is why the statement that women need to “take men along” smacks not only of the deep-seated patriarchal assumption that women’s mobility requires male approval. It also facilitates the transference of sociocultural practices into the Women’s Movement that nurture male privilege and pampering in spaces that women have fought for centuries to mark as their own” (309).

The accuracy of this assessment has been made plain by numerous radical feminists who point out that, when men are present within feminist meetings designed to advance the Women’s Rights Movement, women tend to talk less and self-censor their speech to ensure that men do not take offense at their critique of patriarchy and/or construction of strategies to abrade its presence and perverse power.

In addition to providing readers with a context through which to understand why women need separate spheres through which to organize against oppression, McFadden offers an effective alternative to allowing men to invade women-only spaces. Specifically, she noted that “those women who like men so much that they cannot spend any time during the day or night without male presence can set up what are called “mixed” organisations, which have a right to exist as all other civil society structures do which enhance human desires and interests in the common good; but not as part of the Women’s Movement” (311).

Exactly. This solution is tenable because it helps ensure the maintenance of women-only spaces while providing women and men who insist on occupying the same physical spheres the ability to do so.

Conclusion

While the aforementioned essays are not the only important and insightful works within Female Erasure, these two works are uniquely effective in analyzing issues that remain integral to the Women’s Rights Movement. Those issues include defining gender for the purpose of understanding how it operates against women and grasping why advocating for female-only space will play an integral role in accomplishing the feminist agenda.

Two Must-Read Feminist Essays From Female Erasure