Monday, May 19, 2008

When is the Puzzle(r) Sexist? Ask Your Daughter

Using subject position as a terministic screen in cross-boundary discourse permits analysis to operate kaleidoscopically, thereby permitting interpretation to be richly informed by the converging of dialectical perspectives.
--Jacqueline Jones Royster
“When the First Voice You Hear is Not Your Own”

Sometimes a man’s ostensible attempts at objective representation is more problematic than just a jigsaw puzzle.

My daughter has her Honors Biology final today. Last night, she asked me to help her review the material. Much in the textbook, explicitly, is directly from Aristotle. In fact, he’s given credit for the classifications and the classification system as a “scientist and philosopher.” The test is over various Phyla and Classes of lower level species, and the textbook is fairly thorough, just as is Aristotle. What the book leaves out, is Aristotle’s discussion of females. He claims females leave a lot out that whole males complete. My daughter, in talking about that, has lots of questions about the credibility of Aristotle, and of his observational method. So do I.

Then, this morning, I read David Ker’s latest post on puzzles. It’s another fantastic one, asking about what people in Mozambique (professor Ker’s students) have to interpret when they read certain things and when they look at what a particular artist “represents” in a picture. David gave his students a picture puzzle, and now he’s been giving his blog readers in English the same puzzle in series. Early on, he asked blog readers: “What do jigsaw puzzles have to do with the discussion . . . ”? Now he guides us to answers:

What's wrong with this picture? It's pretty unlikely that . . . ! Imagine the art director for . . . [the] Magazine talking to the illustrator and saying, “For this story we want a picture of . . . ” Then the illustrator went to the drawing board and thought to himself, “What kind of picture can my young readers understand?” The result was this . . . . Does this image have any relation to the actual historical event?”

Now some questions that David Ker doesn’t ask, but our daughters do.

  1. Isn’t it ironic that men feel like they have to conceive of biology or history as a jigsaw puzzle, and yet some of the biggest pieces left out are females?
  2. Why in our imagined hierarchy is there an “art director” directing art to “the illustrator” who directs the representation of some “actual historical event” to “my young readers”? Why, along the hierarchical chain here, must we imagine the “illustrator” to be a male by default, who must represent down to children?
  3. Why does a King trying to solve a puzzle at his own dinner table say to his own child, “You son of a perverse and rebellious woman!” Why is the story, in history, represented this way by the male historian? And why don’t we, whether in the West or in Mozambique ask ourselves where is she, this woman? And why can’t she represent herself? Is she just a missing piece of our puzzle, to represent a father, a son, and another man who would be king?
  4. And when professor Ker has us blog readers “Imagine the trouble we had several years ago translating this [other] strange scene . . .,” why do we not by default find it unimaginable that the very strange thing is that the woman in this history is always unnamed (to this day!)? Why is she always the representative “sinner” in the story, and represented as “at his feet, weeping, and began[ing] to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair”? Is she just a missing piece of our puzzle really only, mainly, to represent our Western or Mozambiquan or Jewish imaginations of him?

I suppose this is very difficult for some of us. Not because it’s some puzzle of history, or of art. But because we are so reflexively trained to ask certain questions, and not others. We think with our “objectivity” (i.e., from the perspective at the top of the hierarchical heap) as the best way to solve our problems. Are we afraid that our subjectivity is going to miss something? Or, really, is it just maybe we are afraid that subjectivity’s going to knock us down off our (male, Western, interpreting and translating for others) high horse?

My daughter asks me, “Why don’t I get to study psychology in high school?” And she, just completing her first year, is starting to see that there are some things very personal that biology, Aristotle-style, just leaves missing. She’s also in Honors Bible at her private Christian school. Can you imagine her questions about that subject? “Why do men say so much about women without letting the women say much of anything?” Good questions for us men and women to ask.


David Ker said...

Bloody feminists! Always counting pronouns. The illustrator was mentioned in the credits. He is a he. As irritating as that is to me, see a lot here that I like. One thing strikes me odd. Feminists whine about books written by men for men in male-centered culture. Why bother? Dump those books and just form your own canon of acceptable authoresses!

[Ducks and runs]

J. K. Gayle said...

Yes, yes, "separate but equal" all over again. If it worked for the white man Judge John Howard Ferguson who sided with the State of Louisiana, if it was upheld by the all-white Supreme Court of the United States of America, then didn't Homer Adolph Plessy get his day in court (even though he a black man did not get to be in the courtroom, separate for whites only)?

Yes, a separate biology book for our daughters, an equal one mind you. And their own Bible too. And their own Supreme Court Justesses and Presidentesses. They do have their own votes now, don't they? See what your daughters think. Or don't.


Peter Kirk said...

Well, Kurk, the historical facts are that ancient Israelite monarchs and US presidents have all been male. (Looks like you aren't likely to get a presidentess for a bit longer. In the long term that may be a blessing - Margaret Thatcher put the cause of women's equality in government back by decades!) The fact is also that women were probably not at the banquet with Saul, and even kings' wives were not considered important enough to name. This would rightly be considered unacceptable in our society today (but then I honestly can't remember your current first lady's name). But as we translate or interpret the Bible we need to look at what it is, not complain that it is not what we would have liked it to be.

J. K. Gayle said...

Thanks, Peter, for all the comments here. Our histories and politics, with respect to inequities for women, we can learn from--or why study it at all. As for translation and interpretation, I don't want to have to complain about it "that it is not what we would like it to be." The Bible itself and our complaining? Well, until we stop interpreting it and stop reading it in translation, then I think there's still much to complain about loudly.

(But "complain" and "whine" are such masculine voices--or at least masculinist ways of listening to feminist voices, I say. Someone once said very well that they are for "tests, trials, [the] tentative rather than [the] contentious, [more] opposed to nothing, [more] conciliatory, reconciliatory, seeking a mutuality with the reader which will not sway [him or] her to a point of view but will incorporate [him or] her into the process, their informing movement associative and suggestive, not analytic and declarative.")