Saturday, December 6, 2008

Aristotle's logic vs. Alice Walker's womanism: What does this mean for your writing?

Nancy Mairs, a feminist academic writer, gets at the abstract and oppositional male shape of Aristotle’s masculinist logic. She also illustrates what such logic would silence: the kind of powerful womanist agency that someone like Alice Walker would use.

The procedure of Aristotle's logic depends on the binary, the separation of what a defined thing is from what it is not. Mairs explains that:

The fundamental structure of patriarchy is thus binary: me/not me, active/passive, culture/nature, normal/deviant, good/bad, masculine/feminine, public/private, political/personal, form/content, subjective/objective, friend/enemy, true/false. . . . It is a structure, both spatial and temporal, predicated upon separation, not relation. It demands rupture, the split into halves engendered by the abrupt erection of the phallus: those who have and those who have not. It speaks the language of opposites. (Voice Lessons: On Becoming a (Woman) Writer 41)

Mairs has started into this description of the logical binary by saying that it is motivated by the male attempt to control the other. Mairs explains, “In order to get what he wants, then, the father must have power to coerce those around him to meet his demands. To have power is to alienate oneself, however, because power is always power over and the preposition demands an object” (41). Logic here is not presented simply as abstract rationality but rather also as a very personal means for the male logician to secure his position hierarchically over the female and any other who threatens his desires.

Mairs illustrates the effect of Aristotelian logic on composition studies. She points to one way that logic has dominated rhetoric, especially the rhetoric of a minority woman. Logic, Mairs shows, has led to the development of one straightforward convention for writing called, “the five-paragraph essay”; and yet there are other more-rhetorical more-complex forms that an African American woman writer, such as Alice Walker, may use in contrast to the standard convention of logic: “In this day of nearly universal education, with handbooks for writers proliferating . . . the five-paragraph essay has achieved the status of a cultural paradigm, which Walker blows to smithereens” (93). Mairs examines Walker’s essay entitled, “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens”:

In this essay, as in many of her other writings, Walker remakes the definitions of Art and the Artist . . . which have [except for such remakings] resided from time immemorial in the patriarchal domain, so that they describe the African-American woman. To do so, she must so subvert the conventional meanings that they no longer have the power to exclude her [i.e., by the binary, definitional logic that separates females from males and even rhetoric from logic itself]. In the process, she employs and thereby validates many of the cognitive modes—indirection, associative reasoning, anecdotal development, reliance on folk wisdom and intuition—which patriarchal [i.e., binarying] critics have traditionally devalued by ascribing them to women and other primitive thinkers [and not to men, who would be especially logical thinkers].

The essay [by the African-American woman] is a structural anomaly. I would hate to teach it in a traditional [i.e., logic structured] freshman composition course. After reading their textbooks, my students would go nuts trying to find the thesis statement and the major points of support for a formal outline, much less figure out its method of development and analyze its logical devices. (Interestingly, in the rhetorical index to The Contemporary Essay, [a traditional textbook] where [Walker’s] “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens” is reprinted, it is listed only under “narration”—not even “description” or “example”—despite, or perhaps because of the complexity of its rhetorical strategies.) (bold font added; 93)

In tracing the structure of Aristotle’s patriarchal logic, Mairs has identified the effect of male binarying on writing: the college composition course separates the logical form of the essay from other more-rhetorical and less-male ways of communicating.

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