Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Feminist's Regress

I want to talk some about feminist methods and ask what they mean for translation. And whether Aristotle or any other white male (like me) is above them.

Patricia Bizzell is on to something when she identifies “Feminist Methods of Research in the History of Rhetoric” and asks “What Difference Do They Make?” Feminist methods include the traditional methods but go beyond them as well. The difference, simply put, is that traditional methodology has to assume that the researcher can remain coldly objective about history and its nature, that these can be mapped by Aristotelian tools of the either / or binary of non-contradiction which leads logically to a hierarchy of what’s most important and, therefore, who’s most important, and necessarily why they and not the other are most important. Bizzell says feminist methods are different because they also work out of, and actually work out, subjectivity in research and in the writing of history.

Bizzell, you remember, asks us to look at afra-feminism. We could look at afra-feminism rather coldly and objectively. If you were not born African (American), and if you were not born a woman, then how else would you look at the methods of afra-feminism? You might start by looking at an African American feminist like Jacqueline Jones Royster. That’s what Bizzell does (and she’s not herself African American), and it’s what Bizzell gets you and me doing. Royster (a historian and also one being storied in history) writes herself into her research for the history of “literacy and social change among African American women,” which is the subtitle of her book entitled, metaphorically, Traces of a Stream.

And, kindly, Royster acknowledges the possibility that you and I may not be an African American woman changing with respect to literacy and society. That is, What if we’re in the majority? What if we’re not in that stream, even as a trace? Royster writes the answer subjectively in a little article she entitles, “When the First Voice You Hear is Not Your Own.”

There, in addition to the metaphors of “voice” and “hearing” and “not your own,” Royster talks about the imperative of subjectivity. She says so much more than this, but at least she says this (on the first page):

“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.”

Now I hope you and I can catch how important “discourse” and “dialectic” is for Royster, and for us. We’re talking about talking together. And Royster is saying something like this: “If you’re not a woman, and if you are not African American, and if your not an African American woman in the history of literacy and social change, and then if ‘you’ write about ‘us,’ what do ‘you’ think ‘we’ hear?” If “we” (non-African-Americans, and especially non-African-American non-females) are honest (which usually requires subjectivity), then we may want to admit we’ve never ever even imagined what “they” (the African American women whose history we’re writing as if objectively) think and feel and hear and see and have experienced. Now, I want us to notice something. The “not” is very very important here. But’s it’s not Aristotle’s “not.” It’s not an exclusionary “not.” Why not? Well, for Aristotle, logic and nature are the first principles. They do not change, and the observer can not change them. And the observer himself can not change from either his nature or from his logic. If nature and logic put certain classes above, then so be it. If free Greek males are by nature and by logic above slaves and barbarians and females, there can not be a contradiction. Kal-eido-scopic means one and only one thing, and not the other. For Aristotle, it is “good form (as in natural beauty)” imposing itself on “the form objectively seen (not just Plato’s ideal)” through a “method of non-contradiction about what’s seen.” Now, immediately, you yourself (whoever you are) should recognize a problem. First, I’m speaking for Aristotle (and I’m a barbarian, not a Greek). Second, Aristotle never played with a kaleidoscope, and the majority of us did. Third, if Aristotle were to write the history of African American women changing with respect to literacy and society, then he’d have to change quite a bit. He’d have to get to the place where he might actually allow a barbarian black female whose history is one of natural-class enslavement to say something, to talk with him. He might have to listen to her. And she might not use his language, his logic, or even believe what he does about his nature. So we’re talking about talking together. And now we’re beginning to talk together a little about translation.

Before we go much further, let me also put in a little plug for Gloria L. Schaab, S.S.J. She’s beginning to take a little heat for her latest book The Creative Suffering of the Triune God: An Evolutionary Theology. Many traditional readers are going to go after it coldly, objectively, knowing that to talk about it rather than just to talk down about it they are going to have to change. Aristotle won’t touch it: its nature is unfixed, its god is not pluralistic enough, and he understands everything his teacher Plato already warned about poetry and pathos and their non-logical epistemologies. So that’s the cold, objective review: it’s “not,” therefore don’t bother. But, before Schaab got into such hot water, before she even got her Ph.D., her scholarship was evolving this way: she wrote a very important article entitled: “Feminist Theological Methodology: Toward a Kaleidoscopic Model.” She begins by quoting Mary Daly saying “One of the false gods of theologians, philosophers, and other academics is called Method. It commonly happens that the choice of a problem is determined by method, instead of method being determined by the problem. . . . The tyranny of methodolatry hinders new discoveries. It prevents us from raising questions never asked before and from being illumined by ideas that do not fit into pre-established boxes and forms.” Later on, Schaab has us listening to Regina Bechtle who asks, “It it possible to be both a woman and a Christian at the same time? Is the Christian message good tidings or bad news for women? Can a feminist theologize as a Christian?” Then Schaab herself asks us about what “has been postulated”: “that one is born a female, is raised feminine, and chooses feminism.”

So traditional method of research in history, of research in theology, might answer coldly and objectively. One is either born female or male. One is either raised feminine or one is not. One either chooses feminism or one does not. There is difference. There is mappable hierarchy. Aristotle observes that, in nature, males are over females. That masculinity and feminity are observable not as social constructs but as strength over weakness. As for feminism? It’s “pish posh” (like slick sophism and contradictory rhetoric) below the rules of philosophical syllogistical logical dialectism (to risk redundancy but to make the point unequivocally).

So what are humans born male without having been raised femininely to choose? How are we to translate all this? How am I?

I’m reminded of C.S. Lewis who resisted modernism a good bit of his life. He wrote two autobiographies, Surprised by Joy and A Pilgrim’s Regress. The former was titularly at least a play on words (because he used “joy” to mean many different things and “Joy” was the name of his wife who also surprised him in many different ways. The latter self-history was a play on John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. We all know that is analogy; and the title’s words share alliteratively an initial “P” and an ending “s” for a bit of word play that Lewis loses with the “R” of regress. So what?! So, this: a decade after the second autobiography is published, Lewis responds to critics who have complained that the book is very very obscure. Lewis writes a long apology (a defense and an explanation) in which he retreats from many things he says earlier. Lewis retreats to modernism, to the Aristotelian principles of non-contradiction. He allows himself to go coldly objective about his own story, and to acquiesce to critics who haven’t taken time really to listen to him. He gives himself great grief over having a very unique story; and he expresses much regret for having used “the word ‘Romanticism’ . . . to describe the experience which is central in this book” and for having given the same word “(unintentionally) ‘private’ meaning,” as if Lewis didn't really believe that words do have unintended second meanings and as if he didn't believe that readers really could take time to listen and to care about what he wrote and even how it wrote it and what all that could mean to him and might mean to them.

But fortunately, Lewis unwittingly also uses the feminist mapping method. (Shall we say he regresses to feminism?) Although he’s tidying up all the “problems” of being obscure with his own history (being born male and raised masculinely), Lewis adds this:

“The map on the end leaves [i.e., the end pages of the book] has puzzled some readers because, as they say, ‘it marks all sorts of places not mentioned in the text’.” And his (chosen feminist methodological) retort is this: “But so do all maps in travel books. John’s route [i.e., the protagonist’s route] is marked with a dotted line: those who are not interested in the places off that route need not bother about them. . . If you like to put little black arrows [i.e., in various places] . . ., you would get a clear picture . . . as I see it. You might amuse yourself by deciding where to put them—a question that admits different answers. . . But I don’t claim to know; and doubtless the position shifts every day.”

Now, here’s a man telling his own history but listening to other men claim they don’t understand. So he says, by a feminist method of subjectivity: “What do you think? But don’t try to be cold and objective and unchanging about everything.”

Which takes us back again to another man (aka Jesus) whose story only comes to us through translation, and whose translated words are what we’ve called kaleidoscopic parable, hyperbole, repentance, miracle, and other such discovery and change in ostensibly-objective nature.

Which brings us forward to another man (i.e., Kenneth L. Pike), who’s collaborated to write Rhetoric: Discovery and Change. And to write of translatable language and understanding this way: “person (and relation between persons) is given theoretical priority above formalism, above pure mathematics, above idealized abstractions. A person, as observer, has choice. The observer changes and is change by observing.”

What I’m trying to do here is to show that nature will not confine men to Aristotelianism or traditional methodology in history writing, in theology construction, or in translation. Passionate subjectivity is key. Humility and ambiguity have to be acknowledged. We can call this a feminist method. We can allow women and men equally to participate in feminist methods. And we can see already how three men (namely C. S. Lewis, Jesus, and Kenneth L. Pike) who use language and are written of in language do begin to help us talk, in cross-boundary discourse with the other, even in translation.

No comments: