This post was written many many months ago and never posted. The most recent revival of the “sensitive issue” of gender over at USIH prompted me to post it, uncleaned up,
Over at the S-USIH blog, a place I’ve only recently discovered, there is a “spirited debate” on gender/sex/discourse/subjectivity in intellectual history. I already weighed in (probably too much, let’s hope none of my grad school colleagues are reading), but my thoughts grew rather too long to be contained to the small comment field.
What I love best about Joan Wallach Scott is the way that she repositions history not as emancipatory narrative, but as critique (JWH 2004, vol 16, no 2).
The objects of critique are the forms and manifestations of ideology and power (their underlying truths, their foundational assumptions) and these are as varied and unpredictable as desire’s objects. … Conceiving of feminism as a restless critical operation, as a movement of desire, detaches it from its origins in Enlightenment teleologies and the utopian promise of complete emancipation. It does not, however, assume that desire operates outside of time; rather it is a mutating historical phenomenon, defined as and through its displacements.
So far the commentators, including myself, have rambled away about “women” and “male” as though they existed indpendent of “time” or other boundaries such as space and place.
Yes there are styles of discourse now in this moment in western, english speaking academic circles inhabited by people in bodies viewed as gendered, raced, classed etc and yes position matters. Yes the styles of discourse prevelant in these various academic circles get “coded”in varied ways, including male and female, perhaps because they are largely viewed as corresponding to people who inhabit bodies that we comfortably label “man” and “woman,” perhaps because we adopt these as convenient conventions that we enquote so as to acknowledge our collective skepticism of such things existing at all. That does not presuppose an essentialist definition of these definitions, as much as it points to the fact that we might wish to come up with other labels, although as po-mo peeps we will realize that labeling combative v conciliatory etc isn’t going to get us out of the divide.
If we can think about intellectual history as one of the many “forms and manifestations of ideology and power” in terms who gets to speak it where and when, perhaps that might get us closer to being able to discuss the topic raised here, where are all the women?
I attended a top graduate school, was exposed to excellent minds, and got a great education. I translated Lacan for my theory group, and I certainly spent more than my fair share of time thinking about and/or reading theory, which I’d also been exposed to as an undergraduate. Yet when I wrote my dissertation (a social history account in women’s history) I didn’t use theory at all except to drop it into the introduction. I seldom debated in public, accept among my closest friends, the ideas about which I read. Why? Was it because I was female, among the youngest, or for other entirely personal reasons? Was it because I decided not to write a “theory” dissertation so I felt less expert? Was it because as a feminist it was difficult to adopt “one” big thinker and to follow him (all my choices were male except Cixous, Kristeva and Irigary who were not v. popular among historians, and I didn’t read Butler until later, which itself is a curious exclusion). I don’t know. I do know that even know when I write about ideas, I’m never completely comfortable. I always think someone is going to call me on some inconsistency or error, even as I draw on theoriests who are themselves either inconsistent, unclear, or who have evolved over the years and thus can’t really be measured in such ways.