"The women of Bikini Kill let guitarist Billy Karren be in their feminist punk band, but only if he's willing to just "do some shit." Being a feminist dude is like that. We may ask you to "do some shit" for the band, but you don't get to be Kathleen Hannah."--@heatherurehere

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Theory Thursday: Lenses and Malleability

After posting about Armchair Feminism, it's probably not a fantastic idea to do a post that is theory-heavy, but here it is.

In the comments from a recent post, Eric notes some problems with the idea of understanding the world through a feminist lens:
See, I sometimes think the "lens" is the problem itself. I am cautious about adopting lenses that produce rigorous conceptual models; I would prefer to gain some insights into the world from various philosophies and political movements and literatures and ideas and worldviews and religions by keeping an open mind. Thus the eclectic part, I grab bits and piece from all over the place and rethink things. Now, of course, that's what works for me at this point in my life.
I admit a lot of this is also very intellectual/academic for me. I'd rather understand and be able to teach/explain/discuss/lecture rather than necessarily agree with/internalize a particular viewpoint. My problem with framing it as a "lens" is that it implies your applying them a priori to reading something or looking at something or watching something. I find this problematic because it then prevents you from developing other possible lens, of opening other possible world-views, or ways of looking at the world or experiencing the world gained from those works.

I agree that the conceptual tool of 'lenses' is problematic in some of the ways Eric points out--though I find it useful to quite a large degree, when people think I mean something apart from, and prior to, experience, problems can arise. The main weakness of the 'lenses' metaphor is that it can imply that a person can pick and choose lenses prior to experience, when in fact even the very choice of which lenses we choose from is given by our current world-view. But one strength of the 'lenses' metaphor is that it allows for, I think, one of the things that Eric also values: Malleability of a world-view. I can choose to look at something through the lens of feminism. And then I can look at it through lenses of race theory, and atheism, and class theory--and even where these conceptual frameworks don't intersect, I can gain more insight into the world as a whole.

On a related note, I'm all for malleability. In fact, that's central to my truck with traditional gender roles (which is one basis of my interest in feminism): I don't have a problem that there are roles. My problems begin to arise when the roles are seen as forever-and-ever-amen, writ in stone, and very not-malleable. (Not that I believe they are infinitely malleable, either, of course, which becomes important rather quickly.) And many varieties of feminism focus on anti-essientialist conceptions of gender roles (among other things), which is one of the things I like about feminism.

I think I get Eric's take on an eclectic world-view, using concepts he's chosen from various other world-views--and I tend to do that more than most as well.

I do think there is a danger of letting the malleability of one's thoughts provide an excuse to stay on the sidelines regarding the world. I start wondering if this happens to Eric as often as it happens to me, when he says this:
I'd rather understand and be able to teach/explain/discuss/lecture rather than necessarily agree with/internalize a particular viewpoint.

For me, one place that I come to feel ok with identifying as a feminist is as regards real violence done by what I see as a patriarchal dominance hierarchy; when I look at my mother's life, and the hurdles she had to overcome, the violence she faced by virtue of being a woman, it makes me want to get off the sidelines and take to the streets (so to speak) more, even if I may be subscribing, for however long, to a set of concepts that I may not agree with at some point in the future. When I see men suffering violence at the hands of other men over what amount to traditional conceptions of masculinity, when I see women going through something like what my mother has gone through, I want to do more than teach/explain/discuss/understand/lecture, and I think that's a good thing--and I think internalizing a viewpoint, if one recognizes that such a viewpoint is often just a starting-point, and that the viewpoint itself is malleable, isn't such a bad thing. In fact, It's doubtful to me that we can avoid internalizing viewpoints to some degree in order to better understand them. And I think using the conceptual tool of 'lenses'--as long as we do recognize the limits of conceptual tools in general--can be powerful.
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