Monday, April 06, 2015

Half Baked Ideas after Reading Helen Razor and Bernard Keanes’ 'A Short History of Stupid'

Identity Politics

At a conference I attended last year a guest speaker introduced herself by stating her identifying factors - she was cisgender, temporarily able bodied, mother to a gay son and so on.

This is the thing now, that we must declare ourselves so that we are clear we are only speaking for ourselves and not for anyone else. As a white women I can’t speak on behalf of a black woman. As a Catholic raised atheist I can’t speak on behalf of Muslim women. But our identifying factors can go on forever. Some of my identifying factors might overlap with other people’s. Others won’t.

Is this in any way helpful? Are we doing it to prevent the accusation that as a white feminist, educated, temporarily able-bodied but with a cancer experience, blah blah, I can’t speak for any other type of woman. I can’t speak for transgender women. It also means we need some new words to identify who transgender, intersex, gender fluid people have sex with because homo/hetero/bi isn’t very specific unless you are cigender. And what about asexuals? Do they need to declare themselves? I’m thinking it is all getting so silly we should drop identifying ourselves and just accept people as people and move along. What we want to talk about shouldn’t be defined by our identifying factors, or are our stories about ourselves the core thing about us, rather than what ideas we might have and how we might think?

Which leads into the problem I have with the idea that the personal is political in feminism and women’s studies. Yes, we need to hear women’s stories, but we also want women to think, to contribute, beyond their own experiences. It also ties into my problem with creative non-fiction - that the writer is core to the story. Frankly, I don’t care about Helen Garner’s dreams and what she ate for lunch when she is telling someone else’s story.

Then how do we define our common spaces and common experiences? If I start a Feminist Book Group should it be open to anyone who identifies as feminist, even though we might have different definitions? Are people who trans from female to male rejecting the feminine? Are people who trans from male to female autoeroticising? Are we all just performing our identifying factors because we’ve been socialised to anyway?

I can see it was useful some years ago - identifying which groups were not gaining access to power. Is there any value in this, identity politics, or is it all now wankery?


A little recap on Derrida. He’s the French philosopher and linguist who said ‘There is nothing outside the text’. From this, all meaning is relative so there is no dependable truth, morality or ethics. He invented deconstruction, which enables a reader/viewer to focus on an arbitrary thing, because there is no core meaning to a text and no foundation of meaning. And since language consists of binary opposites, one privileged over the other, to name something is to state what it is not. Something is absent. This provides an opportunity to challenge the assumptions of a text, which, I’ve been trained to think, is worthwhile.

After these ideas school students can study texts which some people, such as Christopher Pyne and Kevin Donnelly, would deem unworthy of serious study. All this has fallen out of favour in recent years, but some basic ideas of Derrida’s survive. I think we now agree that some texts are more meaningful and worthy than others, generally speaking. But, Razor argues, we still try to find meaning where there is none, for example, in pastries created by contestants in cooking shows. And we now have many more texts and fewer shared meanings and ways of knowing what is important and what isn’t.

So what? Well, this brings to mind conversations about studying the bible, a text Christians would say is meaningful and important. They study it as a closed text - there is nothing outside the text. I’ve done this in my studies of literature, which is fine, but it isn’t OK if you don’t talk about the purpose of the text, or if you treat it as an historical document or as an exclusive instruction for how to live. To use it to prove events in history would require corroboration from other sources. What is it? Because, following Derrida, if there is nothing outside the text (the bible) then there is no core meaning (in the bible). The same could be said of any sacred text treated the same way. In my experience it is religious followers, moral absolutists,  who complain about moral relativism. If you read a sacred text as a closed system, you are a relativist.

My other issue is, as a teacher of literature, the syllabus focuses on studying texts within a concept, looking at purpose, context, tone, and literary techniques and how they shape meaning. We still assume there is meaning. I’m trying to encourage students to not just cruise along with the perceived meanings of texts, handed down over time, but to read them for themselves to find their own meanings. For example, on a recent reading of A Midsummer Night’s Dream I noticed Puck ends the play with a list of birth defects he hopes the lovers’ children won’t have. In terms of Bottoms’ ass-head being central to the play, what could you argue in a reading based on disability? This is how I’ve been trained to read. Such a reading from an HSC student would garner a decent mark, I suspect. But does it really change the meaning of a text, which could also be about the randomness of love, and that we aren’t in control of our own lives? We teach students that they can argue any thesis, the more original the better, so long as the thesis is supported by the text. And the text can be a closed system. Doesn’t mean the text is an instruction on how to live, or it could be, but it doesn’t purport to be an exclusive instruction. Different readings create different meanings. And how does this fit with intertextuality?

And, I’ll add, it irks me that ‘deconstruct’ is now used as a verb synonymous with ‘analyse’ in the English classroom. Confuses me. And will confuse students when they get to university and study critical theory.

Anyone with more time, fewer interruptions or a bigger brain than mine - please help me make sense of all this. Or feel free to advise me to give up on sense and just have fun.

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