Monday, May 14, 2007

bell hooks Mondays

Othering Gender and The Will to Change
I find myself inspired by several posts over on OtherBeyondRealMen to write a bit about bell hooks. In some ways I was brought to feminism indirectly by hooks' Teaching to Transgress. And, while Teaching wasn't a book on feminism per se, hooks' ideas about pedogogy incorporated her feminism to a large degree. This is no surprise, of course, because hooks conceptions of feminist movement are infused throughout her other conceptions--on love, on philosophy and the like. The influence I've felt from hooks, along with some of her more recent work in particular being influential, makes me think perhaps a series of bell-related posts is in order. I think I'll give it a try, giving y'all a dose of bell on Mondays.

One of hooks' recent works is The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love. It's a hard book to put down if you're a fan of hooks' ideas and of her writing style; it's even harder to put it down if you're a feminist man, I think, because it (so far, but maybe not for long) is rare to get a great books directed at the various problems of masculinity.

In her familiar style, hooks frames her introduction in terms of giving some personal motivation for investigating men and masculinity. She begins her book with this:
When Phyllis Chesler's book About Men was first published more than ten years ago, I was excited. At last, I thought then, a feminist thinker will explain this mystery—men. Back then I had never shared with anyone the feelings I had about men. I had not been able to confess that not only did I not understand men, I feared them. Chesler, with her usual “take no prisoners” daring, I was certain, would not simply name this fear, explain it, she would do much more: she would make men real to me. Men would become people I could talk to, work with, love.(pp xi)


The first thing that strikes me about this introductory paragraph is the degree to which we seem to 'other' each other as men and women. While women are traditionally more likely to be referred to as 'mysterious' and such, part of what hooks is doing in this preface is to give a voice to the fact that women can feel that men are mysterious--that men can be othered by women because, in part, of their feelings of fear.

But why does 'mysterious' come out of that fear, exactly? Why do both men and women 'other' other genders? Why, in fact, do we tend to 'other' any gender that we don't identify as? Part of the reason we do, I think, is because of some deeply-ingrained set of concepts around binary conceptions of gender that sometimes, perhaps oftentimes, lead us astray. It's a lot easier to get into an us/them mentality when there are supposedly easily recognizable ways to distinguish between 'us' and 'them'. So, it seems to me that conceptualizations of gender as a strict binary help to reinforce othering, and to reinforce fear.

And, though I don't really know much about the process of 'othering' as a theorhetical sort of thing, it seems to me that othering is both created by imagined differences and perpetuated by fear of those differences, which is why I bring this up as regards hooks' motivation for examining men and masculinity.

hooks continues:
Her book was disappointing. Filled with quotes from numerous sources, newspaper clippings of male violence, it offered bits and pieces of information; there was little or no explanation, no interpretation. From that time on I began to think that women were afraid to speak openly about men, afraid to explore deeply our connections to them—what we have witnessed as daughters, sisters, grandmothers, mothers, aunts, lovers, occasional sex objects---and afraid even to acknowledge our ignorance, how much we really do not know about men.

Here, it seems at first to me that perhaps hooks is buying into traditional conceptions of gender in order to investigate the "mysterious nature" of men—a "mysterious nature" which many flavors of feminism would note isn't a nature at all, but something constructed by adherence to strict gender binaries (and perpetuated by fear of the "other", I'd say). If men are simply mysterious in some way, then lots of questions are begged, seems to me: Are feminine men less mysterious than masculine ones? What about masculine women? Once we see gender along a continuum, it becomes easier to recongize that there are mysteries enough without utilizing rigid binary categories.

Of course, to say that current conceptions of gender don't reflect the entire reality of the situation but, rather, part of current views based in social epistemology, isn't to dismiss 'the differences between men and women' with a wave of one's hand. Most of us live in a world where the traditional gender binary is thought of as a basic building block of social reality, and we all have to deal with the facts of living in that world. We don't will socially constructed truths in and out of existence on a whim. Money is a construct, too, but that doesn't mean we don't sometimes need it to survive, for instance. So, in this way, men are mysterious to women and women are mysterious to men, and there is some truth there to be told, some problems to be dealt with. As such I think hooks' investigations are worthwhile, valuable and useful, but I also think that the first step to better unraveling these 'mysteries' is to recognize and acknowledge the degree to which they are self-perpetuating social creations.
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