On gender, critical theory and flamenco guitar

Hm, wouldn’t it be nice to start this blog with something lighthearted? Sure! – thought I enthusiastically, and jumped head first into the heavy-lifting topic: gender.

A couple of days after I ‘immortalised’ in my individual study plan (ISP, a.k.a. the Holy Bible of a PhD student) the idea that I will use critical theory in my research, I had a vision. I opened the door labelled ‘Critical theory’, and entered a room filled with smoke. It was packed with critical theorists, smoking and typing away critical theory on their typewriters. As I appeared in the doorway, they stopped typing, took their cigarettes out of their mouths and looked at me over their glasses. Adorno, Althusser, Bourdieu, Derrida, Feyerabend, Foucault, Freire, Habermas, Horkheimer, Gramsci, Lacan (at ‘L’ my sight started to blur) – all were there. (Not sure they would all agree to be in the room with this label, not sure they all actually smoke(d), but this was MY vision, remember. Like Alice’s in Wonderland dream).

In my vision, without even as much as mumbling ‘Sorry, wrong door’, I backed out agilely. In reality (I was in the office), I started feverently rummaging in my computer files, chats and emails, looking for the course at Stockholm University a fellow PhD student told me about. ‘Damn it’, hissed I. ‘Where is the damn course’. Finally I discovered it, tacked away somewhere in a chat. I clicked on the link with a sigh of relief: the name of the course was ‘Feminist epistemology and methodology’. I looked for the ‘Apply, apply, apply!’ button. It required a letter from my supervisor sent to the course convenor. I wrote a cool, calm and polite email to my supervisor. ‘Could you possibly consider, – typed I frantically, – that the following course would potentially be relevant for me?’ My supervisor, with her uncanny intuition and ability to read between the lines, sensing my desperation and pleading tone, replied almost immediately and positively. ‘The cat is in the bag’, thought I, fanning away the cigarette smoke from my clothes and skin with the critical theory reading list I had printed out a few hours before.

Did I close the door on critical theory? No, how could I after I ‘immortalised’ it in my ISP (read: painted myself in a corner, handcuffed myself to the radiator and threw away the key, sentenced myself to a downward spiral of layers and layers of theory on top of each other, exiled myself to a jungle for fourteen years). I stand on the treshold, procrastinating, reading science and technology studies instead, relishing Susan Leigh Star’s tart humour. I know, I know there are women in the critical theory room, too (I thought I could glimpse the silhouette of Hannah Arendt through the smoke, arguing with Marx).

The same day as our PhD batch were officially introduced to political ecology (after which for some reason I lost sleep), I bought my second-hand Alhambra. (A political ecologist would ask: Was it really made in Spain as it proclaims, or in fact in China, how and by whom was the spruce logged, and Cui bono?) I bought it from a man (a mathematics teacher). Before buying it, I consulted another man (a guitarist who comes sometimes to play in our flamenco studio, even though my omnipotent teacher tends to take issue with him when he plays soleás and seguiriyas). After buying it, I wrote to the third man, asking him to teach me to play – a message he never responded to. And I didn’t follow-up and pretended to forget all about it. Because, just as with critical theory, I am petrified at the idea of stepping into this man-made world.

I opened the door labelled ‘El toque’, and the room was full of smoke. My favourite Pepe Habichuela, Manolo Sanlucar and, of course, Paco were all there. My other teacher, who taught me some cante y palmas por tangos, promised to send us the name of the female flamenco guitarists who she likes, but I think she forgot. Truth be told, although I haven’t looked for female flamenco guitarists on purpose, neither have I encountered them by chance. In hundreds of flamenco videos I’ve seen, nowhere did I see a woman playing the guitar. I know, they are somewhere in that room, silhouettes in the smoke.

The grotesque, Franco-commissioned stereotype of flamenco is a ‘beautiful’ woman dancing to a man playing the guitar. Of course we know better than the stereotype, but there is no denying that it’s much easier for a woman to come into flamenco through dance, and for a man through guitar. This reinforces and reinstitutionalises these gendered ‘divisions of labour’.

Ask me in four years: How did it go with learning critical theory and flamenco guitar? I hope I’ll have something to say, unless procrastination and the terror of entering the nearly uncharted waters (or smoke-filled rooms) take over me permanently.

Oh, how I wish I will have something to say.

What are the rooms you would love to, but are too afraid to enter?

5 thoughts on “On gender, critical theory and flamenco guitar

  1. I am still contemplating to what extent I want to enter the critical theory room…maybe there are possible bypasses, e.g. by going straight into discourse analysis? Other rooms which give me the chills but am curious to enter are (new) materialism, actor-network theory/STS, and social movement theory.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You may be on to something when it comes to bypasses ☺️ It’s definitely tempting. Look forward to exploring some of these rooms with you!


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