Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Feminism and Academic Thought Routine

In 1991, communication scholar H.M. Newcomb wrote:
Part of the problem here is that in the tradition of the humanities, in their contribution to the human sciences as opposed to the contributions of what we generally know as social sciences, one too often feels compelled to write 'as if' one's claims are stronger or larger than they actually can ever be. It would be wise for many of us to write more tentatively, but editors have a way of suggesting that those who hesitate are lost already, and unworthy of serious consideration (p. 44)

An interesting point, vastly popularized by post-modernism's insistence on the impossibility of definite knowledge or meta-theory. Yet, post-modernism itself needed to 'state' things to be heard out. It's almost as if we need to be determined, harsh and compelling if we are to be heard.

I find it almost impossible not to think of the feminist critique of reason: men state things, women apologize. Men think, women feel. Genevieve Lloyd writes:
The connotations of 'rationality' are of objectivity, abstraction, detachment (p. 165).

And if a statement is objective, detached and logical, then it has to be definite. There's on room for hesitation. And definitely no room for apologies.

In one of my early classes, my feminist professor stopped me abruptly and admonished me: "Stop apologizing", she said. "Stop being so deferential". And believe me, I'm really not a deferential person. If anything, I evaluate my colleagues through this lens: she's not there yet, I say to myself, because she's too deferential to authority.

But exactly what makes an academic authority? What makes good academic work? Back to square one: big guys state things. And, if you do not state them, you are told you should: this will show that your thought becomes valid, that you finally developed your 'own' argument. After all, a phd is all about bringing 'your original contribution' to the field. But how can you bring a contribution if you are hesitant?

Many female academics I know have often complained about the academic routine: it's all about stating things, about egos and authorities, about crucifying the arguments made by others. Never about cooperation and collaboration, always about proving wrong (hey, even constructive criticism may fall into this).

So I hesitate: I like to make statements. But I also see them as provisional. I like to point out the inconsistencies - and 'like' here comes from the fact that I have often moved forward in my thinking exactly by thinking through these inconsistencies. But I also remind myself there's no 'perfect argument' (and yes, it is painful when it comes to your own work...). I'm not sure I want an entirely apologetic academic culture, paralyzed by relativism. If anything, I think this relativism has got to Marxism and almost killed the only strand of critical thinking left in academia. But I am not sure I want an entirely proud academic culture, unable to question itself and to hesitate.

Could this be why I never seem to get published?

Lloyd, G. (2000) "Rationality" in Alison M. Jaggar and Iris Marion Young (Eds.) A Companion to Feminist Philosophy. Blackwell Publishing
Newcomb, H.M. (1991) "The Search for Media Meaning" in Communication Yearbook 14, ed. James A. Anderson. Sage Publications, pp. 40-4

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