Let’s Get Situated.
Let’s Get Situated.
Questioning Dominant Discourse and Arguing for Change
I come from the belief that all knowledge is situated- meaning, everything we know comes through our lenses of perspective of the world, and it differs depending on where each of us is coming from, and a multitude of factors. I am going to say some things, here, coming from me, a recent graduate in anthropology and social change, with a big squishy heart that cares too much and a brain full of new knowledge jumbling around. My argument is for systems change: to turn away from the dominant discourse and toward new ways of knowing, doing and being that are built to listen, are built to take risks, make mistakes, and learn from them. Let’s start with where we are coming from. Within the world of academia, there is often an entitlement to what is true and real. Here we can point to positivism, which, as defined by Sandra Harding, is the “…belief in the high value of Scientific knowledge over every other kind of knowledge, in the importance of good method in achieving scientific knowledge, and that such good method inevitably makes a necessary contribution to social progress” (2005). Reading between the lines, I can see clearly that what is considered “good,” and what is “social progress” is directly connected to the capital-centric hegemonic ideology which overwhelms our world. I would like to use this paper to argue that questioning these positivist ideals is important. I am inspired by some of the feminist viewpoints that work to unravel and critique positivism, and look to other voices besides the dominant elite, in an effort to give voice to the voiceless. My hope is that more and more people start to question positivist ideology, and open up to the idea that there are other valuable situated knowledges out there, just waiting to be heard.
Karen Barad, one of my favorite feminists, offers a good place to start. Barard makes a point:
“ …we come up with a different way of thinking about what insights the Sciences, the Humanities, the Arts, the Social Sciences, and let’s not forget insights derived outside of academia, can bring to one another by diffractively reading them through one another for their various entanglements, and by being attentive to what gets excluded as well as what comes to matter. So that we wind up with a very different way of engaging the relationship between the Sciences and the Humanities” (2012).
There is this phrase she uses in there, referring to “diffractively reading” and I think that the way she uses it in context gives a tangible account of what it means. Diffraction has to do with entanglement. Entanglement, in my mind, is about overlapping, but getting even more complex than that. This is complexity, that we are talking about- that these things, in the Sciences and Humanities and beyond are ridiculously complex and intertwined. Donna Haraway, who greatly inspired Barad, used the term simultaneously. She argued that:
“…our problem, is how to have simultaneously an account of radical historical contingency for all knowledge claims and knowing subjects, a critical practice for recognizing our own ‘semiotic technologies’ for making meanings, and a no-nonsense commitment to faithful account of a real world, one that can be partially shared and that is friendly to earthwide projects of finite freedom, adequate material abundance, modest meaning in suffering, and limited happiness”(1988).
Tall order, Donna Haraway, but I like where you are going with this. Sometimes it doesn’t seem like we have gotten that far in the past few decades; it feels like we are still fighting the same old fight. However, in some ways it is simpler than it is often made out to be. Science seems to want to untangle the things that are so delicately yet perfectly tangled together in their natural state, and study them, try to find out how to exploit them and make money. Haraway also made this connection, and we could easily gather that science is in service to capital.
Capitalism. I blame capitalism. And patriarchy, and the long trail of destruction left by colonialism- all in an effort to obtain capital. The oppression, the exploitation, and the violence that simply get justified no matter what, no matter how cruel or inhumane, and all because somewhere along the line, money became more important than life and the wellbeing of the earth and all of its creatures. Positivism comes into play with zero wiggle room for any other way that things could be true- which is hard to make sense of when it seems so wrong. Harding makes a bold statement:“Dominant groups cannot imagine that their assumptions are false: that slaves are fully human, that men are not the only, or perhaps even most desirable, model of the ideal human, or that non-Western cultures have developed sophisticated and competent scientific and technological systems” (Harding, 2005). Well, I cannot imagine that their assumptions are legitimate. What drives men, primarily white, elitist men, to create systems where this terrible violence is built in, and then refuse to see that there is any other way? What makes their assumptions hold sovereignty? This is why I think that we need to bring in more of the feminist perspective, and one of its developments of note was feminist standpoint theory.
Coretta Philips and Rod Earle frame feminist standpoint theory quite nicely, and I will let them introduce it: “Feminist theorists promoted the importance of producing knowledge from the situated experiences of women, so that gendered understanding, for example, comes only from representing the standpoint of women and their socially structured and materially defined oppressive realities” (2010). Hold the phone. Talking about situated knowledges and feminist theory cannot move forward without bringing in the subaltern- the voiceless. Gayatari Spivak’s famous essay ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’(1988) delves deep into this issue. In Philips and Earle’s statement, the women, given a standpoint to speak from of their experience of oppression, would in effect be coming out of the position of the subaltern. Thus we can define ‘subaltern’ as a position, a condition, not as a class or segment of people. The subaltern are those who cannot speak, and who are wrongly spoken for (if at all), and can never be accurately represented by others. However once they are able to speak truthfully for themselves, and more importantly, are heard for their truth, the subaltern veil is lifted, and they are no longer subaltern anymore.
However that was not the question I was trying to get to. In fact, I am not really trying to answer questions at all, but rather to prove the importance of asking them: in questioning the dominant voices and reaching for other voices to be heard. Feminism tries to look behind these curtains, and put an ear to the ground, to hear the voices from below- from the vantage point of the subjugated. “Many currents in feminism attempt to theorize grounds for trusting especially the vantage point of the subjugated; there is good reason to believe vision is better from below the brilliant space platforms of the powerful” (Haraway, 1988). But, what does “better” mean in this context? Why is anyone’s standpoint, whether from above or below or diagonal or sideways any more important than anyone else’s? If the goal is to take the standpoints of the oppressed and subaltern and make them matter more and be more important than the views from above, how is that better? I think that keeps us spinning in this same loop within the line of thinking that some people are more important than others, which I personally think is dreadful. I want to find a way out of this crazy power play dynamic, and not get twisted up in it in other ways, just by flipping it upside down. None of us, not a single one of us, really knows what is going on. We all only get one set of eyes to look through.
Haraway may have been getting at something different, however, and overall I don’t disagree with her. “The moral is simple: only partial perspective promises objective vision. All Western cultural narratives about objectivity are allegories of the ideologies governing the relations of what we call mind and body, distance and responsibilities. Feminist objectivity is about limited location and situated knowledge, not about transcendence and splitting of subject and object. It allows us to become answerable for what we learn how to see” (Haraway, 1988). I like this, she is getting into the underbelly of this argument. “Only partial perspective promises objective vision.” Yes, because all perspectives are partial, and to claim any perspective as more than partial is simply false. And the part about becoming answerable for what we learn how to see blows my little mind. I feel like we need to learn what it is we cannot see, as well, or rather, acknowledge that there is an entire unimaginable world out there that is more than we ever could know, and that we really don’t know very much at all. And then from our limited, situated perspective, we can look- and see, as Barad pointed out- the diffractive entanglement of what is in our field of vision- and know that just because this is what we see, it doesn’t tell us what others see at all, nevermind what everyone should see.
Vision is an amazing thing, but what clouds our vision? I’m not talking about floaters in our eyes or smudges on our glasses, but about the other types of lenses we look through to understand the world and what is going on. Haraway speaks to this, and the overwhelming influence of dominant power on what and how we see. “The eyes have been used to signify a perverse capacity- honed to perfection in the history of science tied to militarism, capitalism, colonialism, and male supremacy- to distance the knowing subject from everybody and everything in the interests of unfettered power” (Haraway, 1988). There you have it, built in systemic violence serving patriarchal domination, and generally valuing money and power over life and earth. If we sat for a minute and thought about how much of our vision is clouded by these values that are not ours, well, we may be sitting there for a while. The problem is that the entanglement that Barad was talking about has twisted its way into our modern lives, as much as we detest it. How much of what we think of as ‘common knowledge’ do we actually believe? How is it okay that systemic violence is so normalized and accepted as just the way it is? If I had my way, knowledge, doing, being, and everything would be based on life, love and Earth instead of money and power, but it is difficult to hold that when the rest of the world, especially coming from the elite ruling class, is still thinking of it the other way around.
We spoke of vision, now let us speak more about voice. Vision and voice are as intertwined as anything, and as much as a metaphor as a representation of our actual senses that take in the world. After all, it is the loud hegemonic voices that tell us what we see, that put the clouded lenses in our lines of sight. It is the lack of voice that makes the subaltern unseen. Philips and Earle, emulating what other authors have said, explained that “…authorial ‘voice’ raises complex dilemmas concerning a tendency, on the one hand, to ventriloquise or ‘speak for’ silent voices and on the other, of a form of textual laryngitis in which the author’s voice is apparently silent, through everywhere present and nowhere identifiable” (2010). It seems that we have two extremes here at the same time, that create a lack of humanness, as the silent voices are only getting represented in order to serve the purposes of the authorities, and the authorial ‘voice’ doesn’t have a clear origin or sense of humanity. I think we need to leave ventriloquism to the puppeteers, and stop with this inhuman madness.
In conclusion, I must say how depressing it is to live in such a world with such a terrifying history of oppression and violence that still perseveres. In the same breath, I am excited to be alive at a time when changes are afoot, and the feminine voice is gaining traction, and our vision is able to open up to a wider frame- by taking in multiple perspectives, and multiple realities that occur simultaneously, and are incredibly entangled. Cracks are forming in the dominant systems, and we can start to push through. However my fear is that we will push too hard and spin things off balance in a different direction, which will undoubtedly get an unwanted response. So, we educate. We learn from the past, and let that inform us. We ask questions. We ask, why do things have to be the way that we are told? What if I don’t have the same values and beliefs as those that are behind the authoritarian capital-centric dogma? Donna Haraway felt that “…the issue is ethics and politics perhaps more than epistemology”(1988) and I would say that I agree. Ethics and politics need to be questioned. Epistemology and pedagogy will follow suite.
Barad, K. (2012) “Nature’s Queer Performativity” University of Nebraska Press.
“Matter feels, converses, suffers, desires, yearns and remembers” Dolphijn and ver der Tuin Interview with Karen Barad. New Materialism.
Haraway, Donna. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.” Feminist Studies. Vol. 14, №3 (Autumn, 1988), pp. 575–599
Harding, Sandra. The Politics of Method in the Human Sciences: Positivism and Its Epistemological Others. Durham: Duke University Press, 2005.
Philips, C and Earle, R (2010) “Reading difference differently: identity, epistemology and prison ethnography” British journal of criminology, 50 (2). Pp. 360–378.
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. Can the Subaltern Speak? Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1988.