On feminist philosophy, Freud, populism and flamenco shawls

My Alice-in-Wonderland moment of (allegorically) entering a smoke-filled room full of (mostly male) critical theorists, which I described earlier, has brought me here, to this point (or should I already start saying ‘standpoint’?) of musing on, puzzling over and, as one of the professors at our department loves saying, ‘muddling’ with feminist epistemology.

A reminder: I ran from that room as fast as I could to hide in the ‘FEME spring 2021’ course at Stockholm University.

There are three reasons why I came here. One, the terror of the ‘critical theory room’ and the intuition that I needed to balance it with something – if only for my own sanity. Two, the ensuing realisation that there is no such thing as ‘just theory’, and when you apply one or another to the phenomena you study, you are making an epistemological (or is it political?) choice; so conducting a study of co-production of knowledge from that men-dominated room felt a little skewed. Finally, I knew I simply couldn’t ‘skip’ feminist thought (as I was tempted to) if I wanted to talk about ‘situatedness’ or ‘decentering’ or ‘plurality’ of anything.

I put ‘feminist engagement with situatedness of knowledge’ gingerly in the ‘theory’ part of my research plan and got a reinforcement in the comments on the margins. ‘Standpoint theory may be useful – those most marginalised being in the best position etc…’, wrote my supervisor. I had no clue what on earth he was talking about, but I knew that soon enough I would find out.

My first exposure to standpoint epistemology frightened me so much that I nearly packed up my stuff and ran back across the street into the critical theory room, to hide behind – I don’t even know who, Habermas perhaps? His sweet utopia of undistorted communication. Or rather perhaps knock on Laclau’s door in the middle of the night and beg him to assure me that there is nothing underneath the surface, that what you see is what you get and that anything and anyone at any point can be disarticulated and radically excluded.

That thought brought me profound solace in the face of the ruthlessness of the standpoint idea, in the version in which I read it first.

I need to make a disclaimer here: since I read that first article (Hartsock 1983), I have seen many other versions of standpoint epistemology, some reducing standpoint to the point of disappearance, and others falling in between and making it much more sensible (reasonable, humane?). But my first impression was quite shocking.

That version of standpoint was a direct extension of Marxist idea that the only perspective which can give us the true insight into the ‘deep patterns underneath the surface’ is that of the proletariat. Here, ‘proletariat’ was more or less simply replaced with ‘women’ (am I constructing now ‘a straw woman’ out of Hartsock? My apologies…). Now, as strange as they may sound in my simplistic rendering, both ideas make perfect sense – in the framework of the meta-theory which produced them. There are very good reasons WITHIN the theory for the proletariat/women to be in that special position, although not the reason my supervisor mentioned, namely that they are marginalised (which is there however in later versions of standpoint epistemology).

My difficulty was with going back to this meta-theory’s ontology – materialist, essentialist, realist – after my brain had been irreversibly post-structuralised by Laclau and other constructivists. I had already embodied the idea that there is nothing under the surface. The surface is all there ever is, and that surface is a delusion, a mirage, smoke and mirrors.

But there is another reason why standpoint theory (I repeat, in the version I first encountered it) reduced my spirit to a dismal state. In my imagination (which tends to run a little wild) I saw ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ flashing red, as much as red can stand out against red background: ‘Red Terror’, red flag, red blood.

Coming from a country which endured a totalitarian regime for three generations, a regime which was in part premised on some kind of a standpoint theory, I am allergic to it. Terror sits in my kidneys and releases from time to time, at points I least expect, its venom, eliciting irrational thoughts and actions. The black despair of standpoint theory taken to the extreme (à propos ‘‘there is no such thing as ‘just theory’’) is what Bulgakov described satirically and heart-breakingly in ‘Heart of a Dog’. I very well imagine that ‘Heart of a Dog’ might be seen as controversial here in the West, and perhaps especially today, but it is what I grew up with.

(But in any case, Hannah Arendt had already said all there is to say about the strangeness of standpoint idea, I guess. Even before the post-structuralists had a chance to lay their hands on it.)

Another thing which I found musing (and a bit amusing)  was that first feminist standpoint version was based on Freud as well as Marx. As I was reading the bits of Freud assigned for the Laclauian political discourse theory class (which reading I unexpectedly tremendously enjoyed), it struck me that women were conspicuously missing from his analysis, and when present, were so in some inverted form. At one point he goes into great pains describing falling in love, and how the ‘object’ is substituted for the ‘ego ideal’, and the whole time I was expecting him to say that this was a very typical process of a ‘devotional’ love that women tend to experience for men they idealise – but it turned out he was talking about the ‘sentimental passion’ of a young man. Well, everyone builds on their experience.

After a day spent in the company of Freud and Laclau’s writing on Freud, I was on my way to my flamenco class – with a book hidden underneath my flamenco shoes, of course. I read Nelson, who, in turn, went into great pains criticising modern psychology for being empirically based on the study of white men. She didn’t mention any names, but I assume that Freud was included in that. Back to feminist standpoint: how can you build something on something you (or your fellow philosophers) then criticise?

This took me back to Laclau and Mouffe’s view of populism (which many find problematic, if not controversial), as the building of ‘equivalential chain’ of demands which have little to do with each other, and that the feminist movement is an example of that. Here is the controversy: Will I be hanged for saying that feminism is populism? (Not my idea. You know where to find me: I will be hiding in the bibliography section, behind Laclau, Mouffe and some others.)

Reading the diverse feminist thought, many a time I had to stop and ask: Wait, what was the philosophical project of this movement, once again? In the end, I had to write it down on the first page of a notebook bought specifically for the purpose of jotting down my grapplings with feminism, and go back to it whenever I was reading something completely at odds with what I read before. And I like it. It is this pluralist, inconsistent, shimmering fabric of feminism which is fun – as well as slightly annoying.

As I was rushing to my flamenco class, I thought: why is it that in the entire feminist course there are no men (or rather, no-one who strictly identifies themselves as a man)? Where are all the men in feminist thought? Does feminist epistemology boil down to women talking to women? How is it productive? How is it going to achieve any emancipatory goal? I imagine men are there somewhere in the feminist room, silhouettes in the haze, just like women in the critical theory room, but I haven’t met them yet.

At the end of the flamenco class that day, we practiced with the shawls. Every time we practice with the shawls, my teacher shows how you are to hold it away from your body, and stresses that you are not supposed to wear any rings, earrings or pendants because they get stuck in the shawl. She shows (I believe if she wasn’t a genius flamenco dancer and teacher, she would be a no less genius comical actress) what happens when rings, earrings and pendants get stuck in the shawl, and then she shows what happens when other objects, not part of a dancer’s body or attire, get stuck in the shawl – the most comical of all being the guitar neck. She has demonstrated on more than one occasion what happens when the guitar neck gets stuck in a dancer’s shawl, making the guitarist fall off his chair, and each time it sends us rolling with laughter.

But the truly ironic thing is that in our entire class (she put the intermediate and advanced groups together), there is only one man (whom my teacher fondly calls ‘Carlito’). And even more ironically, the only person who grapples with his shawl getting stuck is him. All the girls wear rings, earrings and pendants, including my teacher – but it is only the man who keeps swearing, pulling out the shawl’s black threads out of his white shirt buttons.

Perhaps his experience is also a kind of standpoint?

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